Suggestion Scheme Goes Sour
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Suggestion Scheme Goes Sour

We launched a factory suggestion scheme for the first time just over a year ago in tandem with our continuous improvement programme. It began with a honeymoon period: ideas flooded in and most were of such high quality that we implemented them straight away. However, in recent months the suggestion scheme has mutated into a Pandora’s box.

Our entire workforce has been targeted through KPIs to submit at least one suggestion a month and have three ideas implemented a year. The idea must either save time, save money, add value to customers or reduce waste from our manufacturing process.

During the early days there was a discernible buzz on the shopfloor about taking part. You used to hear operators teasing their colleagues about ‘only being able to come up with a £1,000 saving’ or submitting ‘just the one idea’ this month. As a management team we tapped into this competitive spirit and decided to reward the person who came up with the best idea with a £500 prize  and a week away in the director’s holiday apartment in the South of France.

The suggestions rolled in and helped us reduce defects, cut lead times and generally improve the business. Then we hit an iceberg. We started to find that the best ideas were all coming from the same dozen or so employees. Everybody else’s suggestions, after an encouraging start, began to grow more obscure and increasingly pernicious.

For example, last month, we were graced with: ‘invest in better quality coffee and biscuits at the canteen’ and ‘give us quilted toilet paper in the gents’. But the management team decided to turn the other cheek as we have a rule that we only provide feedback on the successful suggestions.

Then, to make matters worse, there was a fracas on the factory floor last week after one employee accused another of ‘stealing his idea and getting the reward for it’. Why do you think things have gone so badly wrong for us? Is there anything we can do to get the whole factory team back on track?

How would you handle this? Kevin Eyre gives his view…

Do we really need to incentivise people to be creative? What is it about organisational life that leads otherwise sane people to believe that the best way to get new and improved ideas out of people is to reward them for it? Why did we forget about the ‘intrinsic’ motivation that is so closely associated with creativity – a reward in itself?

Suggestion schemes serve a purpose. In particular, they can introduce the idea of looking systematically for improvement. But how often is it that we hear of the schemes becoming bureaucratic, contentious and lacking in vitality?

Answer… it’s pretty often. So the case here is not unusual. What should you do?

First, build from the best of what you have created. Remind employees not of the strength of the scheme, but of the worth of their ideas, of their imaginations and desire to want to see improvement happen. Create a gallery or roadshow of the best and the worst of the last two years, from small improvements to big ones; the crazy ideas that turned out to be great and the plausible ideas that didn’t really work, but from which much learning was had.

Secondly, acknowledge that the life of the current scheme has probably run its course and invite ideas on how to replace it. Make this formal. Consider a small working party of previously strong and weak contributors. Allow feedback to the management team after a month.

Thirdly, think hard about what you are trying to reward. The evidence says that effort is a more reliable indicator of longer term performance than immediate excellence. Effort enables learning, the cycle of success and failure. How do you recognise and reward this? Not perhaps the ‘best’ ideas, but the most ideas?

Fourthly, and irrespective of the strength of response to item three, work out how to build improvement systems into the work that people do rather than making it a bolt-on. Real-time problem solving is the answer here; Jidoka and all that that implies. Sustainable improvement only really comes this way. When it’s oneoff big shot stuff, it seldom lasts longer than management ‘bribery and cajoling’ will allow.

As for the shopfloor fracas, there is learning here for the management team. Isn’t this behaviour a perfectly rational response to the conditions created by management? If you set up a competition then people compete; if people compete, there are winners and losers and sometimes losers cheat. Creativity functions best in a climate of collaboration, not competition.

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