Is your suggestion box generating the best results?

Tom Moriarty explains how to build a strong suggestion program.

By Tom Moriarty

Many organizations put suggestion programs in place. These are intended to provide a means for good ideas to save money or improve efficiency to be generated, and perhaps rewarded. If the suggestion program is well managed then the organization will also benefit from more motivated employees.

Suggestion programs are good in their intentions but a lot of them don’t provide the benefits that organizations are looking for. Some of the common problems or barriers for the program to function well include:

  • Line employees may not have been provided with adequate information on what constitutes a suggestion, and how they need to be submitted
  • Middle managers may not evaluate and forward suggestions in a timely manner
  • It can take too long to get approval and to be allowed sufficient resources to work on the suggestion
  • Suggestions by lower level employees may get taken over by others who are senior in organization

When these types of barriers are encountered the suggestion program will eventually fail. Front line employees that don’t have a full understanding or assistance in drafting their suggestions may not get them approved. If middle managers don’t take the time to process suggestions the manager is missing a huge opportunity to support and develop their personnel. Likewise, if there is excessive bureaucracy that keeps the senior leadership team from selecting and authorizing the suggestion, then people will be discouraged. Discouragement leads to reduced frequency and quality of suggestions.

The most destructive act is when a senior person takes credit for a good suggestion of one of the people under them; particularly if there are rewards for successful suggestions. Taking credit for someone else’s work is dishonest, and will eradicate every shred of trust that had existed between labor and management – never do it. Leaders need to constantly strive to increase trust. This is why a suggestion program must be transparent.

An organization’s leadership team must have the best interests of the organization at heart. The suggestion program should foster positive improvements in business results, safety, and regulatory compliance, as well as providing opportunities for employees to increase their development. Give people opportunities for their ideas to be heard, and the opportunity to show that they have valuable ideas.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Coast Guardsman having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years, then earning a commission through Officer Candidate School, retired as a Lt. CommanderTom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER. He is a former Coast Guardsman, having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years; earned a commission through Officer Candidate School; and retired as a Lt. Commander. During his final year of service, 2003, Tom was selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Federal Engineer of the Year; an award sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He is a member of the Society of Maintenance and Reliability professionals, the past Chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Canaveral Florida Section, and a member of the ASME Plant Engineering and Maintenance (PEM) Division. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Western New England College, and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology; Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Florida and Virginia, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, various credentials in management and reliability fields. He can be reached at

How do you do this? The vision of your organization should provide a unifying and inspiring description of what the organization stands for, providing a sense of direction. Next, the suggestion program needs to be well-defined, it must provide opportunities for all to participate - and it must be resourced. Well-defined means it is written down, communicated to all employees, and covers the roles and responsibilities; how many and what scale of projects can be approved; and how the projects will be funded, monitored and judged to be successful. It should also clearly define what benefits the submitters will attain from approved suggestions and results. Make the benefit or reward to the submitter and project team commensurate with the net benefits attained by the organization.

If you’re starting a program, it is best to start modestly. From a funding perspective, perhaps 3% of the operating budget can be set aside for the program. Develop different levels of projects; such as projects that will be authorized under $5,000 to be completed within three months of the resources being authorized, and projects authorized up to $25,000 that must be completed within one year.

Appoint one person who will be the coordinator of the program; select a person who has a good communication skills, can help package suggestions, and who has a good rapport with all levels of employees. His/her job would be to assist people with properly structuring and communicating the suggestions, thereby giving each suggestion the best chance of success. The suggestions should be listed in common areas and provided to the plant leadership so there is visibility, ensuring good ideas are credited to the right persons.

Periodic meetings, perhaps quarterly, would provide an opportunity for the coordinator and the plant leadership to select the projects for subsequent quarters. Providing lead time allows the people who will be involved in the project, and the people they report to, to be able to plan for the time allocation and other preparations.

As selected projects are completed, there should be business improvements that free up more resources. These resources should partially go back to the organization’s bottom line as cost reduction. The other part should be reinvested, gradually expanding the suggestion program.

Read Tom Moriarty's monthly column, Human Capital.