Suggestion boxes and schemes

In this modern world of open innovation and crowdsourcing, it is all too easy to forget the tried and test practices that still work. Well, with suggestion boxes and schemes, perhaps we should forget … because too often they don’t work.

The concept is great. We have a box handily placed where employees can make suggestions for change and improvement. We read and select … and then we provide some form of reward to those staff whose suggestions are adopted.

(The practice allegedly started with the British Navy – but then it was an anonymous ‘suggestion box’ so that sailors could make suggestions – and complain – without fear of reprisals.)

So, if the concept is good … why do suggestion schemes often fail.

Well, firstly they will only succeed if employees are fully confident that any idea they put forward will be treated with respect, treated fairly and given a good ‘hearing’. (This is also true of brainstorming … where all ideas must be treated with respect … and where the eventual judging should be looking for what is good about the idea, where does it have merit … rather than where does it fall down.)

Secondly, many employees may feel wary of their ability to put their ideas forward in written form … conscious if the fact that the reader is likely to be significantly better educated than the writer.

Peer pressure may prevent employees from making suggestions … there is a fear of being seen as a ‘bosses’ man’.

And perhaps most importantly, many suggestion schemes start off successfully – carried forward by the initial enthusiasm – but tail off with time until they become discredited.

So, is this the end of suggestion boxes and suggestion schemes? Not necessarily. But we do have to overcome the kinds of problems we have just referred to.

The last issue (fading away) is perhaps the worst problem – as it is hard to resurrect a scheme that has ‘run into the sand’. So, consider having a time-limited scheme … summer suggestions, say … whereby the box only exists for 2 or 3 months (but might be brought out again in the future). Or have themes for different time periods. Suggestions related to health & safety in January, to ‘better serving our customers’ in February, to ‘making us more efficient’ in March, etc.

Make the box easy to use. Put printed forms near the box (and near workplaces) … forms which are simple to fill in … and which show that only a little explanation is necessary.

But most importantly, do treat all the suggestions with respect. Give feedback – generalised and anonymous (except to those whose suggestions are adopted) – thanking those who have made suggestions, giving some general information about why ideas have not been adopted (yet!). Make it clear that some ‘unsuccessful’ ideas might be investigated further … and so could still turn into successful suggestions.

When you have a small number of ideas that are to be adopted, have some form of celebration … an idearama?? – and show how much you value the suggestions. One way of doing this is to invite all those who put in a suggestion – successful or not. Another is to invite the teams containing all those who have been successful … to encourage the others. Yet a third is to invite family members of the successful employees … so that can show how much they are valued at work.

It is difficult to be too prescriptive. What you do should depend on the type of organization you run … and the type of relationship you have with your staff.

Hopefully, however, this article has given you enough information to show that the suggestion scheme and suggestion box can live – and be successful.


Productivity is my 'bag' ... it is what I know about. I am President of the World Confederation of Productivity Science - and Director of the National Productivity Centre in the UK - go to this site for some good free resources and some (paid for but low price) e-learning on productivity. I also edit the International Journal of Productivity & Performance Management. My views on productivity and on learning (which I think are related) are su...

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