If the internet is any clue, I’m not the only one who was prompted by its 10th anniversary to re-watch a bunch of old episodes of The Office.
(For fans, there’s a great new podcast called Office Ladies featuring Jenna Fischer (Pam) and Angela Kinsey (Angela). They walk through each episode sharing the inside scoop.)
There’s an episode during the second season in which Dunder Mifflin Paper Company’s branch manager, Michael Scott, learns that his boss is coming for a visit later that day to hear his ideas on how to make the branch perform better.
Of course, he’s Michael Scott, so he has no idea how to make the branch perform better. In a panic, he remembers that there is a suggestion box for collecting employee ideas for improvement. He figures that is the solution to his situation. He calls all of the employees into the conference room and opens the box.
After Michael assures the employees that he values their “constructive compliments” and reads them every week, it quickly becomes evident that the suggestion box has not been opened for years.
Michael Scott is a unique (and hilarious) case of a manager with good intentions but questionable leadership skills. He usually sets out to do right, but generally fumbles the execution. In the real world, it’s unlikely he’d have kept his job for as long as he did.
But I think most of us have a little in common with Michael Scott. He’s certainly not the only manager who has requested employee ideas only to ignore them. In fact, we talk to people in this boat quite often. Many of them think the answer is as simple as making the suggestion box electronic.
We disagree. If you really want to get your employees engaged and reap the benefits of their innovative ideas for improvement, you’ve got to do more than stick a suggestion box in the cloud.
That’s the easy part.
Hard Part 1: Creating a Culture of Collaboration
Whether your suggestion box is physical or electronic is really of no matter if your employees aren’t enthusiastic about sharing their ideas for improvement. Making a suggestion is taking a risk. The idea may be ignored, rejected, or even ridiculed.
There's a scene in a later episode of The Office in which Michael tells the bunch, "Wow, okay. Well... I swallowed all your ideas, I'm going to digest them and see what comes out the other end."
In work environments where fear of failure is prominent, it’s no wonder that people don’t offer constructive feedback.
Toyota is credited with early innovation around the idea of continuous quality improvement. It’s telling that the foundation of their work is “Respect for people.”
Toyota’s leaders believed that the employees closest to the production process were in the best position to recognize opportunities for improvement and to implement them. They also knew that it was essential to develop trust and open up the lines of communication so that feedback was greeted with eager appreciation.
We sell technology. We love technology. But culture is more potent than software.
Hard Part 2: Implementing Employee Ideas
If you have created a culture that encourages engagement, collecting employee ideas for improvement is certainly easier with a digital model rather than a physical box. The benefits are clear. People can make suggestions from anywhere, whenever an idea strikes them, and managers can be alerted when new ideas are submitted. But that only gets you so far.
The whole point of asking for employee feedback is to find and implement innovative ways to improve. Software that simply replicates the suggestion box metaphor in the cloud isn’t sufficient to support turning those ideas into projects with measurable results.
On the other hand, improvement management software helps with both collection and implementation. It has a structured workflow with notifications and task management.
Once an idea is selected for implementation, the team can collaborate with one version of the truth, follow the project’s progress, and capture all relevant documentation. The best solutions make it possible to measure the short and long-term impacts of each idea. This is great for maintaining executive support, and also for keeping employee enthusiasm high. Another advantage is that over time, a repository of knowledge builds, making future improvements and employee onboarding that much easier.
Our customers can attest to the fact that the more ideas you implement, the more ideas you get.
So, no. A digital suggestion box would not have saved the day for Michael Scott. He wasn’t prepared to do the hard things.
But leaders who focus on creating a culture of improvement can undoubtedly benefit from software designed to collect, implement, and measure the success of employee ideas.