A September 20, 2010 New York Times article title Haitians Cry in Letters describes what happened when suggestions boxes were set up recently at the 1,300 camps for refugees of the earthquake in Haiti. The letters in the boxes are not suggestions but desperate pleas. I can think of few more inappropriate situations for a suggestion box.
Based on this reaction, it sounds like this relief organization leader is a bit removed from the gemba and not exactly aware of the human struggles being lived daily within these camps.
When the International Organization for Migration added suggestion boxes to its information kiosks in scores of camps, it did not expect to tap directly into a well of pent-up emotions. “I anticipated maybe a few cranky letters,” said Leonard Doyle, who handles communications for the organization in Haiti. “But to my absolute, blow-me-down surprise, we got 700 letters in three days from our first boxes — real individualized expressions of suffering that give a human face to this ongoing tragedy.”
On the one hand I am extremely reluctant to criticize the leaders of a relief organization who are diligently trying to address the plight of the people in disaster areas such as Haiti. But it would be a mistake to say, “They are doing their best” or “They are doing more than I am” and to remain silent when obvious and avoidable mistakes are being made.
Leaders are often unprepared for the “absolute, blow-me-down” level of ideas, engagement, enthusiasm or frustration that is expressed when suggestion boxes are first introduced. Due to this unpreparedness, suggestion programs too often fail. This is why we recommend implementing suggestion systems only after a few other steps have been taken and foundations have been laid. The very first of these is to set clear expectations on the input that the leadership is looking for from the people and what the leadership is prepared to do with it. The more clear this is, the more likely a suggestion program will succeed.
There are many other factors. Just as we wouldn’t invite farmers to throw seeds on barren soil, during a flood or a dust storm, organizations should stabilize situations, create empowered teams that are led by trained individual leaders and functioning towards self-sufficiency. In business terms this means creating stable processes (quality, employee turnover, safety, revenue) before asking self-directed teams to come up with suggestions to improve the situation. Within unstable situations the needs will be too great, the suggestions too big and out of reach, resulting in only frustration by the team and distrust in management as nothing gets accomplished.
It would be interesting to know what the goal and purpose of these suggestion boxes was on the part of the IOM. Was it to generate a certain number of suggestions? To implement some changes? Perhaps there is some method to the madness of these suggestion boxes. Giving the people in these camps an opportunity to write down their cries for help may give them some release, or hope, if not actual results. In the letter deposited in the suggestion box Ms. Saint Hilaire pleaded about her situation, “Please — do something!” We can credit the International Organization for Migration for that: doing something.
As an open letter to the IOM, my suggestion is the same one given to any organization that installs a suggestion box: now that you’ve opened the box, don’t give up and close it.