Hey, That's A Brilliant Idea!

It is called the Japanese miracle - the kaizen teian - and the concept successfully provides a way for employees to propose more efficient ways to work.

Today, variations of the "suggestion box" can also be found at many American companies. Yet despite the proven effectiveness of employee suggestion programs, it's estimated that only 7 percent of U.S. companies operate them.

In many companies without programs, employees feel their suggestions fall into a black hole. Managers may think some ideas are mediocre or frivolous and the overall consensus is that creativity simply isn't encouraged.

But before you dismiss ideas that come from your company's rank-and-file, consider this rule of thumb: While many of the thoughts generated will be worthless or already in place, as many as 50 percent of the ideas can save you money and help your operation become more efficient.

If you have a suggestion box, or want to set one up, the primary goal is to motivate employees to use it. Here are eight ways to make your program a success:

Suggestions may generate pure net profit and the cost of making a change can produce quantum leaps in savings. Let's say you have 100 employees who come up with 100 ideas to save just one dollar a day. With 250 working days a year, that's a saving of $25,000. If your net profit margin is 5 percent, the savings are the equivalent to increasing your sales by $500,000. Can you think of a simpler way to make that kind of money?

The History of Suggestion Boxes

1894: NCR established the first suggestion box in the U.S. after an official visited a duke's estate in southern Italy. There, employees could submit ideas about how to run the estate more efficiently.

1898: Eastman Kodak set up an employee suggestion program.

1913: The Post Office started its suggestion program.

1914: Prudential Insurance Co. held a four-month contest, and paid $75 for the best suggestion.

1941: General Electric accepted 12,453 of 40,834 suggestions it received, and paid $95,000 in awards.

World War II: The War Production Board prompted companies to turn suggestions into a war effort. Companies established Century Clubs for employees who earned more than $100 for their suggestions. Bausch & Lomb doubled cash awards and publicized winners on the radio.

1950: W. Edwards Deming traveled to Japan to guide the nation's post-war industrial recovery. He brought home the concept of continuous improvement and employee suggestion programs quickly became more common.

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