Where is Your Suggestion Box?

The placement of a suggestion box within an organization speaks volumes about their level of commitment and sophistication in pursuing customer service, quality and continuous improvement. The example above was in the lobby of a county health center, on the way to the restroom. All in all, not bad placement. However the lack of suggestion forms, paper or writing tools in the vicinity made me suspect that the convenience of the yellow column was the chief design principle in its location.

Under the ambitious but ambiguous words “Success is Our Goal!” another sentence in smaller font says “Your Ideas Make a Difference!” You ideas, in fact, make no difference at all. Actions make a difference. Ideas may inspire action, but they do not in themselves make a difference. If ideas made a difference, without the necessary buffer of action, the world would be a combination of far more horrible and far more fabulous. People working at the non-executive levels of an organization (which at one time or another, is practically everybody) experience and know that our ideas do not make a difference at all.

Management thinkers from Edwards Deming to Daniel Pink have pointed out how having a degree of control, direction and ability to improve one’s own work can be a larger source of motivation than financial rewards.

In order to take this dangerous idea that our ideas make a difference and make it true, we must take action. The location of the suggestion box is one critical element in enabling ideas to make a difference.

The suggestion box is a three-dimensional representation of the kaizen process of an organization. It is a good idea, a positive intent. However, suggestion boxes as a kaizen process are rarely executed well. This is because ideas are not developed within or through boxes. Nor are actions taken via boxes. How we design the process of gaining improvement suggestions and how we link this to action makes the difference between a box on a wall and another type of box, pictured below.

This is illustrated by a recent experience upon checking out of a Best Western Hotel in the greater Minneapolis area. The young man at the reception desk asked “How was your stay?” Normally this question packs as much meaning as a “good morning” or “hello” between strangers passing in the elevator. These phrases are what linguists call phatic expressions, serving a social purpose but not conveying any useful information. The Japanese person saying “hai” and seeming to agree earnestly with everything you are saying is in fact only fulfilling a social need for harmony, another example of phatic communication.

When the fellow at the Best Western desk asked about my stay, he was making small talk. He did not expect customer feedback. He did not in fact want any concrete information about my hotel say experience. Even if he was genuinely interested, the process did not enable it. He had other people to check out of the hotel, other work to do. The truly irate customer may have caught his attention.My socially tone-deaf yet polite response to his phatic communication with two detailed suggestions for improving hygiene and in the design and set up of the breakfast and coffee areas did not land in his suggestion box. He did not know what to do with such non-urgent complaints. He made no effort to document these abnormalities.

The kaizen philosophy requires that we be bothered by small abnormalities, not be satisfied with the status quo, and give constructive criticism to any who ask sincerely. It takes almost no effort at all to find improvement suggestions when staying in hotels, even the best ones. It takes far more effort for customers to follow-through and check whether our suggestions led to action. When one visits a particular hotel repeatedly, it is possible to check. From the point of view of the hotel, the inability to demonstrate a process of immediate containment and correction action is a lost opportunity to impress the customer.

A few weeks after my stay I received an e-mail from the regional manager of the Best Western, asking that I fill out an online survey. Normally these are “unsubscribe and delete” e-mails, but recalling the episode above, I clicked the link. After giving feedback on how closely they met my expectations on several dozen generic criteria, I was given one field of about 150 characters to provide suggestions for improvement. I suggested they expand the field size. On the next page was a generous space, about ten times larger, for recognizing individual staff who had made my experience at their hotel a good one. Kaizen, 0; Respect for People, 1.

At the end of the customer survey there was an “other comments” section. I repeated my two suggestions and added the fact that the response of the hotel staff to my suggestions was only vague acknowledgement rather than immediate action to correct the simple problems. I received an e-mail reply thanking me for my feedback and apologizing for the fact that the hotel did not exceed my expectations. If my travels take me back to that Best Western, I will check whether the minor issues were corrected, and more importantly whether “How was your stay?” has become more than a phatic expression.

In the articled Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System, authors H. Kent Bowen and Stephen Spear generalize the continuous improvement process as a series of experiments aimed at achieving an ideal condition, a perfect customer experience. As an example of the kaizen process, the suggestion box is inadequate according to their design criteria known simply as “the four rules”. To paraphrase and apply to the customer satisfaction, suggestion box or kaizen context:

  1. Highly specify content, sequence, timing and outcome
  2. Connect customer and supplier directly with unambiguous yes-no signals
  3. Flow material and information in simple and direct pathways
  4. Improve via the scientific method, as close to the front lines as possible, with a mentor

In other words, every suggestion box should be labeled:

“Dear customer, the process you just experienced was designed under the hypothesis that you will be delighted if this process did X in Y amount of time with outcomes of Z. If we failed, please share the details of how we fell short. Thank you for participating in our experiment.”

Or something with more specificity to the situation and less cheek. Instead most suggestion boxes communicate big, vague intents on the order of “Please give us your suggestion on how to improve our airport!” or “Success is Our Goal / Your Ideas Make a Difference!” Asked the wrong questions, we give the wrong answers, or stop caring.
How many process-specific suggestion boxes most organizations would need to actually have direct and unambiguous lines of customer-supplier two-way communication at the process level? This brings us back to the question and title of this post.

Where is your suggestion box?

The only good place for a suggestion box is between your ears. When your suggestion box doubles as your personal ambulatory hatstand, the only way you can fill it with other people’s creative thinking and intentions to take action is to carry said suggestion box within earshot of them. If a specific kaizen idea needs more work, put something slightly better back into the other person’s suggestion box and let them carry it around for a while. A suggestion, from my box to yours.