Anyone that owns and runs a small business knows that one thing you will get is a steady supply of problems. Some problems are easy to solve, others are not. What’s a proprietor to do? One blazing flash of the obvious is to ask for suggestions from those closest to the problem – your employees.
Napoleon Hill once said, that “Ideas are the beginning points of all fortunes.” If that is true, when was the last time you received an employee suggestion that led to a successful idea that was implemented in your small business? A better question might be, when was the last time you asked your employees for suggestions?
Put another way, when it comes to great ideas, are you and your leadership team asking for, and getting them, from your most valuable idea creators – your employees?
Research shows over and over again that employees’ suggestions save, or make the companies and organizations wise enough to garner them billions of dollars each year.
IBM launched ThinkPlace in 2005, a website where IBM employees from around the world are encouraged to suggest innovations. Since then, they have received thousands of ideas, with a good percentage of them being implemented. This created a win-win situation where the individuals received recognition, and the company saved or made millions of dollars.
You don’t have to be “Big Blue” to take advantage of a steady flow of ideas that can improve your bottom line. However, in my research, and through experience with my clients, I have found a number of stumbling blocks that get in the way of small business owners asking for and receiving good ideas.
In this article, let’s look at just three of these obstacles that can prevent your company from creating a vibrant internal suggestion acquisition system (VISAS) and getting its’ fair share of profitable suggestions from your employees.
Obstacle #1: Management does not communicate to their employees the areas in which it needs help.
When management does not communicate their need for employee input to solve problems, it can unintentionally come across as a certain kind of smugness that your employees are not qualified or intelligent enough to offer solutions to your organization’s challenges.
When it comes to getting suggestions for solving the most important problems facing your company, don’t expect your employees to be mind readers. Make it clear that the company continually needs fresh ideas on how to address some of the high priority problems it is facing. Share with them some of the particular areas where your company is experiencing difficulty, and actively use an employee suggestion system.
Obstacle #2: Not having and using a proven employee suggestion acquisition strategy.
In most of the companies where I have consulted, I have found very few use an employee suggestion acquisition strategy that consistently worked. One reason for this is that they did not create a culture where employees and management worked together to solve the problem. Employee suggestion expert, Leila Durmaz of Accompa™, emphasizes the point that successful suggestion programs incorporate a culture of interaction and collaboration. Without that kind of synergy, it is hard to keep a successful stream of good suggestions coming in on a regular basis.
In other words, if the people in your organization don’t see ongoing evidence that supports team members asking for and giving ideas for workplace improvement, they won’t believe you really want their ideas.
In my experiences working with clients, I have found the most successful work environments that foster regular interaction and collaboration are the ones where there is ongoing communication within and between departments. Employees are encouraged to speak their minds and are given positive reinforcement for communicating what they feel should be improved.
When most people think about getting suggestions from their team, they think about that old fashioned way using a suggestion box with a pen and paper slips. Today, technology has made it easier than ever to gather employee suggestions. There are a variety of apps that can provide you with a system to gather those much needed suggestions and input from your team.
One app is SnapSuggest™. After interviewing the founder and creator, Rick Wilfong , I learned a few things about this particular app. From the employees’ perspective, I like that it is user friendly and convenient. To use it, all a person need does is pull out their iPhone and make their suggestion. It gives that person an immediate and positive outlet to voice their thoughts and opinions in the moment. If they choose so, they can submit their ideas anonymously. This allows them to provide sensitive feedback without repercussions. This app also allows the user to view and comment on suggestions made by other employees and see management’s responses.
From an employer’s perspective, one important benefit is that it allows management to keep a pulse on the culture and pick up issues before they fester. It also gives them a way to communicate with employees and get feedback on a specific event or issue.
Using an app like this allows the business owner to gather employee ideas and concerns. It also allows for open, three-way communication, management to employee and employee to employee.
Obstacle #3: There are no rewards given to the person who made the suggestion that was implemented.
In order to keep a steady supply of suggestions coming from your employees, you must have a system to reward your employees who provide them. It is critical that you positively reinforce the behavior you want more of. One way to find out what they prefer as rewards is to poll them. Pick the top three or four of these reward preferences and use them.
Here are four of the most popular ways to provide incentives to employees who contribute their usable suggestions. They can be used individually or in combination. Remember, one of the best ways to give the right type of reward is ask an employee to choose an option that they prefer.
Gifting – This can take the form of gift cards to brand name stores, movie theaters, restaurants, sporting events, car washes, maid services and other forms of necessary or luxury services.
Perks – This could take the form of an employee parking spot close to the front of the building, or a certain number of additional paid vacation days. It could be the use of the company condo in Florida or use of a company car for a month. Any incentive that would be above and beyond what they get from their regular paycheck and company benefits would be a good incentive..
One example of a combo reward above is illustrated in the following. One of my small business clients, a monument building company that creates and processes custom memorials, was able to develop the kind of trust that encouraged management and employees to offer suggestions. As a result it reaped huge rewards. In one particular situation the owner had made it known that in order to increase their engraving production at peak times of the year, they would have to invest in building a small addition to their building. Since an addition like this would cost approximately $50,000 - $75,000, and it was not budgeted for, they did not want to commit to doing this project right away.
One of his shop managers stepped forward and proposed a plan where he could build a portable structure that could be assembled and disassembled as needed for a fraction of the cost of a permanent addition. Upon hearing the plan, the owner was quite pleased and gave his approval to build it. To thank the shop manager he rewarded him by giving him the unlimited use of a corporate credit card to take him and his wife to a resort for a weekend.
Financial Compensation – This can take the form of a check, cash or a raise in salary. What is attractive about this approach is additional monetary rewards can be immediate and used by almost everyone.
Recognition – This is the one most recommended and preferred by employees, because it provides something very special called, emotional income. Wilfong strongly suggests this one. As he puts it, the advantage of using recognition, is that it is more powerful than monetary reward because once the money has been spent, the effect quickly wears off. Durmaz concurs.
One example of this approach could be providing a special parking space in front of the building with a sign that reads “Innovator of the Month.” Another example is praise and congratulations at your monthly or annual meeting. Still a third is to add a recognition citation to their company personnel files.
So in summary, to make your employee suggestion system work for you, implement these three points:
1. Communicate to your employees the areas where you need help.
2. Start using a modern employee suggestion system and stay with it.
3. Implement a meaningful rewards system.
Once you have done this, you will be well on your way to improving your company’s culture and its’ bottom line.
Tom Borg is a business expert who works with small and mid-size companies. He helps them improve their profitability by building their internal communications and trust levels. He can be reached at:734-404-5909 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at: www.tomborgconsulting.com