10 tips for getting ideas from your employees

Besides you, who knows your company best and can offer the most worthwhile ideas for improvements? Your employees. But just try to drag those ideas out of them. They’re too busy. Or afraid of getting shot down. Or maybe they’re discouraged by the dust on the suggestion box.

Suggestion boxes can just be a lame way of trying to take the fear out of making suggestions by making suggestions anonymous.

Soliciting advice from your employees doesn’t have to be an exercise in futility, though. Here are 10 ways to get good feedback from workers that intimately know your business — and how to improve it.

1. Get the suggestions rolling in by asking for help.

That is the single most-important communication that a leader can make. Asking for help gives your workers the green light to make recommendations.

2. Focus on where your company needs suggestions.

Concentrate on one topic or area to help your employees come up with specific ideas instead of generalities. Hone in on a theme of the week or of the month — cost-saving ideas, ways to improve safety, how to improve customer satisfaction, etc. Pick what matters most to your company. A small-business owner also may want to limit suggestions to those that can be implemented quickly and with little investment. A recommendation for a new product may be good, but not necessarily something that your company wants to tackle immediately.

3. Give employees the information they need so they can make good suggestions.

Workers who are knowledgeable about operations will give better, more informed suggestions. Embraced open-book management or other ways to give employees a clear understanding of how the business works. Otherwise, the ideas you’ll get will be cosmetic ones: We need a better fan or We want a new water cooler.

4. Have employees do the math: It’s not enough to suggest improvements.

Employees should also be required to prove why the idea is a good one. As part of the suggestion process, employees should be required to document how the suggestion will improve operations: How much money will be saved? How much revenue will be generated? How much time will be shaved off the manufacturing process?

5. Ask for suggestions and how they can be implemented.

Companies can be great at soliciting feedback, but if they do nothing with the suggestions, they’re not benefiting. There are several ways to make sure implementation: Make it part of the suggestion process, that employees must not only make suggestions on how to cut costs, but will give a hand in implementing them. Also, cut out as much of the paperwork as you can. Empower people to solve the problem.

6. Keep a deadline for suggestions.

A limited-time offer for suggestions will spur your employees to act. It also will motivate them to be choosy about their recommendations. They’ll pick the best ideas and won’t waste time trying to write up everything that they can think of. In other words, a deadline will focus your employees on thinking of quality of suggestion and not quantity.

7. Hold several rounds of suggestions each year (and not have an ongoing recommendation system).

The idea is similar to keeping employees to a deadline. By holding several suggestion periods instead of an ongoing, perpetual one, you’ll keep employees from getting fatigued.

8. Reward employees for good ideas.

If your company can afford it, it’s best to reward employees for suggestions that are implemented. You’ll get more suggestions and better-quality suggestions if employees know that there’s compensation for good ideas. What form and how this compensation takes place can vary. A Green stamp approach will help when employees rack up points for good ideas. These reward points can be redeemed for prizes at a local store or from a mail-order catalog. Hold a raffle for all employees who have submitted ideas. The randomly chosen winner gets a grand prize, such as a Caribbean cruise. The idea is to make the process fun.

9. Be open to suggestions.

There’s nothing worse than a boss who asks for suggestions from employees and then trashes them. You need to set the stage. Listen carefully. To be precise: read back what you think the employee’s idea is and make sure you understand it. Tell the employee when you’ll get back to him or her and if you don’t know, tell them when you’ll get back to them with a date on which you expect to have an answer for them.

10. Make suggestions a team effort.

Having people make suggestions can set up a competition. A team makes it more cooperative and can help embellish and bring an idea to fruition more so than an individual employee.

Follow these tips and your company will be overflowing with ideas on how to improve.