Why Suggestion Schemes Fail

Today’s guest post is written by Robert A. Schwarz

My company has worked with suggestion schemes at hundreds of organizations. Each year many organizations start a new suggestion process, while many existing suggestion systems are abandoned.

Let’s look at some examples – kept anonymous to protect the guilty.

An insurance company had installed a suggestion scheme. It was well designed, performing very well and the person heading it up had attended training and really was interested in the task. In spite of good data that showed that the process was an effective profit center, a newly hired executive vice president with strong dislike of suggestion schemes strongly opposed the process. Although the CEO had supported the process, it was discontinued. Our reading was that there was no one on the executive staff that would challenge the new VP. Those operating the suggestion system chose silence over potential loss of a job.

Another case, the bank had an outstanding process led by a fantastic administrator. Employees really liked the process and high participation resulted. Again, data on the contribution to profit was well documented and accepted. The bank chose to re-engineer all of the operating functions resulting in a moratorium being placed on suggestions until the re-engineering was completed. The suggestion scheme has not recovered.

A major government agency has analyzed the process to death. Frequent requests for proposal for an added modification are being largely ignored since suppliers can only chase a client for so long. Internal job changes and disagreements add to the lack of focus and moving ahead. They have commitment from the top and their union to install but lack continuity at the operating level.

A manufacturer identified a senior factory experienced person to head up establishment of the new suggestion system. Training was performed including backup persons to operate the system. Software was modified to handle some unusual requirements and installed. The process was well documented and proved to be effective. The literature and manuals were some of the best we have seen. After a year, the leader was transferred and the process died for lack of effective leadership.

We can identify at least a hundred examples where the process was sabotaged and died.

Why do these failures happen?

There are a number of key issues, six are listed below. These do not represent all issues but cover common threads with customers we have worked with.

  1. We do not value the skills needed to manage a suggestion system
  2. Employee Involvement (EI) persons are rarely promoted to a larger involvement assignment.
  3. Management thinks they have answers on how best to manage involvement yet they have little or no training in the process
  4. There is no college degree I could find that prepared a person to manage involvement
  5. The Employee Involvement Manager/ Administrator role is seen as a rotating short term assignment.
  6. The job is looked on as having little merit or residual benefit to the company or the individual

Let’s take a detailed look at each of these six items, reviewing specific concerns for each:

1.     Skills are not valued. We need CHAMPIONS for the process. Where are they?

The task of effectively managing a suggestion system or other forms of employee involvement require skilled and imaginative leadership, a CHAMPION. Some key capabilities:

  • Effectively use promotion items like posters, newsletters, mailers, video, etc.
  • Possess good interpersonal skills to handle hostile suggesters, supervisors and executives.
  • Organization skills to set up award ceremonies, luncheons, picnics and executive briefings.
  • To effectively operate in a staff environment where recognition is usually limited.
  • Understanding customer inputs to allow focus of suggestion action towards vital issues.
  • Understanding team activity to promote use of suggesters as a part of problem solving teams.
  • Understand problem solving processes and where resources can be found to help suggesters.
  • The ability to facilitate prompt evaluation and implementation of ideas.
  • Ability to take risks to promote a process that is misunderstood and threatening to staff and management.

2.     Where is a promotion for a successful administrator?

Our experience has shown that most suggestion system administrators/managers report to Human Resources. Human resources (HR) is largely staffed with persons who were trained in salary administration, recruiting, payroll, benefits and other key HR functions. The suggestion administrator may not have the HR skills for promotion in that field. They may not be considered in other job areas outside their hierarchy.

Another problem is that the employee involvement activity benefits operating functions and should probably be part of a total quality management function. The savings generated by a suggestion scheme rarely benefit HR. A particularly effective administrator can generate significant excesses in HR budgets while saving cash for operations budgets. As a result the EI manager frequently lacks any real support from the HR manager.

3.     Management has the answers.

Management is usually convinced that they know more about managing and motivating people than a low echelon suggestion system administrator. I have seen endless examples where recommendations or proposals from the suggestion administrator are ignored or completely revised. A good example is in the selection of awards. There is usually an individual on the executive team that has a strong opinion on cash versus merchandise versus mall certificates versus no awards at all. Usually the executive team honors the outspoken member and ignores recommendations from the administrator.

Management and staff can also be threatened. The suggestion scheme opens communication and exposes mistakes and errors for corrective action by suggesters. Now we have first line employees finding errors in output from staff and management functions.  For the process to have acceptance by staff and management there must be training for them and insistence by top management that all managers support the process.

4.     There is no college training for suggestion scheme administrators.

We have reviewed curriculum from universities and cannot find where degrees in Human Resources or Business Administration contain instruction on suggestion schemes or other involvement processes like teams and recognition. There is also no training that even suggests that there should be linkage between suggestion schemes and needs of customer or teams. When queried as to the reason, I was told that there is no demand for graduates with these credentials.

5.     Managing Employee Involvement seen as a short term assignment.

There is continuous turnover in the ranks of EI managers/administrators, sometimes for assignments of less than one year. Since they mostly are HR persons, they need to get back to their careers of managing benefits, retirement, compensation or other traditional functions once leaving their EI post. There is little evidence of effective champions remaining an EI function for extended periods of time and if they do stay it can be detrimental to their career. We lose those persons with the skills to generate profits and employee satisfaction.

6.     The job is seen as having little merit in most organizations.

The lack of identified training and misunderstanding of the needed skills lead to a lack of awareness of the real needs of a successful EI administrator. Many EI administrators do not identify that they are a profit center and a powerful communication tool. Thus they do not promote the bottom line contribution of the suggestion scheme to management or its impact on customer satisfaction and employee morale. Upper management itself often has a poor understanding of what the EI administrator does and gives results little merit. Since it is not valued, the colleges do not train and recruiters do not seek qualified individuals. Without qualified individuals to administer the process and managers that understand it, the process will not work.


There you have it.

We do not promote nor value the skills of a suggestion administrator. Their managers are looking in another direction for their own future and supporting the administrator is not a win-win situation.

The administrator/manager of a suggestion process may be highly motivated and effective. However, through networking there has to be a realization that the future is not in their present job.

On the other side, we can prove that a well managed and supported suggestion scheme generates profits roughly ten times costs. It allows focus on critical issues. Suggestion schemes build employee involvement and loyalty. Suggestion schemes provide a vital link between facilities to share money saving ideas or ideas that increase customer satisfaction.

We are ignoring a great process, poorly managing those that administer the process and leaving our organizations without vital improvements in customer satisfaction and profits.

Robert Schwarz is president of Total Quality Systems and has a degree in Mechanical Engineering with extensive manufacturing and marketing management experience with Honeywell Inc in Minneapolis. He was assigned to a role of managing Employee Involvement and Quality Initiatives, during this he brought quality circles and a variety of team processes to interact with the top rated suggestion scheme. He wrote the book, The Suggestion System, a Total Quality Process.


6 thoughts on “Why Suggestion Schemes Fail

  1. That is a good question. In my experience, the staff will be relcutant to take part in the programme if the senior management team look after and administer the scheme. In some organisations there is a culture of mistrust between the management team and the employees. The best suggestion schemes have someone of a lower level looking after the day to day running of the scheme but reporting to a senior manager who then sponsors the programme.

  2. Hmm. I now feel like I should try leaving my role as scheme manager as the skills I have or have gained, are not really sought after elsewhere.
    “There is little evidence of effective champions remaining an EI function for extended periods of time and if they do stay it can be detrimental to their career.”

    A little worrying actually.

    • Well, this is just one person’s theory, and to be honest, it is not one I really buy into!

      I can name you many friends who have used the suggestion scheme as stepping stones to promotion and I personally believe that you are in a great position to get a valuable over view of the business and networking with a wide range of managers. So rather than seeing it as a negaitve, i see it as a positive move!

      Don’t throw in the towel just yet Melissa – There is still much work to be done yet!

      • Thanks Ant.
        I still (quite sadly, I know) really enjoy my role! And I actually agree more with you, that the role opens up doors to Sen Mgmt like many roles at my grade would never do.
        Hopefully we’re right!

  3. Pingback: Top 10 innovation and ideas management internet links – weekly round-up 26th August |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s