Thursday, July 22, 2010

Let Me Suggest

I made my first employee suggestion in 1977 at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in Madison, Wisconsin. The unsatisfactory outcome of that experience kept me from making another during my next ten years with the U.S. Forest Service. Last month, as a customer not an employee, I offered up a minor improvement idea at Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo.

If my experiences are any indication, little has changed in the management of suggestion systems over the past 33 years. It was inept to a ridiculous extent in all three of my experiences.

At FPL, a photographer, Jim Brooks, and I became good friends. Most of Brooks’ work was running the photo lab. I marveled at the volume of page-size glossy prints of charts and graphs churned out daily for review copies of research reports and other documents. I asked Jim why the research divisions and the publishing section didn’t simply make those copies on the Xerox machine FPL had installed several years earlier. He said that had been brought up a time or two, but nothing ever came of the idea.

One day, everything came together to get me working on my first employee suggestion. The FPL newsletter published a glowing report on the suggestion system, including several examples of substantial cash awards made for the better ideas. As a fairly new, fairly na├»ve, employee, I was enthused. I asked Brooks if he could come up with numbers for a full year on how many prints the photo lab processed. He could; actually he tallied several years’ production. Within a day or so, a report was circulated showing costs per page of running copies on the Xerox machine. That study was made because FPL was considering installing a half dozen more units, one on each floor of the two main buildings.

I gathered up the info and filled in the necessary form, with Brooks and me as co-suggestors. We showed beyond a doubt that FPL would save at least $2,000 annually making the change, and quality with paper copies was just fine for the purpose. An organizational savings of $2,000 a year, for the foreseeable future, was a fairly hefty sum in an era when my annual salary, about in the middle for those working at FPL, was $9,000.

Within days, we got phone calls from the Director’s Office telling us our suggestion was accepted. The next week Brooks and I were summoned to a meeting spot were all employees in our unit were assembled. FPL Director Herb Fleischer arrived with two checks in hand. Each was for $12.50.

“Well,” I told a disappointed wife Sandy, “Every little bit helps.” I was so ticked off I couldn’t think of anything original to say.

Three weeks later draft reports crossing my desk for editorial signoff still included glossy photo prints of charts and graphs. I cautiously approached my boss, Chief Editor Max Davidson. One of his assistants placed all orders for photo prints and page copies. I asked if there was a time lag between official acceptance of an employee suggestion and putting it into practice.

Davidson, who had attended our little check awarding ceremony, said he never had liked the Xerox copy idea, so he wasn’t going to make any changes.

In 1987, I was working in the Forest Service Regional Office in Milwaukee. The director of administrative services, Roger Thomas, had developed in intense dislike for me, based on reports reaching his ears that I thought several of the people in his staff group ought to take more frequent breaks from their usual activities to do a little work. Unfortunately, the second (and last) employee suggestion during my career involved the administrative services staff.

My interest in paper recycling was high, as it is today, after two years doing information work for the recycling research project at FPL. Our Milwaukee office had collection points for used paper in every staff area. Administrative services people made the rounds at intervals to pick the waste paper up and get it ready for a recycling firm to haul away and process.

As in every Forest Service office I’d been in, employees used and discarded lots of blue-lined writing paper. My suggestion was that clean, unwrinkled, used paper be separated from the other stuff. During slack times in the duplicating section operated by administrative services, blue lines could be printed on the back of the sheets, the sheets padded, and the pads stocked for reuse. In total, the office spent several thousand dollars annually for this type of paper, so annual savings obviously would be half that amount.

My suggestion landed back on my desk pretty quickly. Written across it in large letters was: “REJECTED. Ridiculous! There is no slack time in our duplicating section.”

Sometime later, a small voice on my phone said, “Mr. Klade, I really need to talk to you.” It was a nice young lady who ran an offset press in the duplicating section.

The caller said she had put in a suggestion to print blue lines on the back of selected waste paper for reuse within the office. Printing and padding would be done during slack periods in her section. Her suggestion has been accepted, and she was to get a $500 award for the idea. She had just heard I made the same suggestion about two weeks earlier, and it was rejected.

“I just don’t feel right about this,” she said. “I think we should split the money.”

That was a very honorable proposal by someone who was in one of the lowest pay grades in the organization. “You keep the money,” I said. “I’m just glad we’re going to get a recycling improvement around here.” I also commented that she should be proud of herself for making the phone call.

I worked for the U.S. Forest Service for another decade. In all that time, I never considered for a moment wasting ten minutes writing another employee suggestion.

At Borgess Medical Center, patients can use several communications systems to get help when they need it and to stay in touch with the outside world. Telephones are a must for several needs.

During my stay as a patient, telephone use could have been smoother, saving time and embarrassment for me, and time for busy hospital staffers. The space where most handsets show one’s phone number was blank on mine. Probably no need to put the number there was apparent, because each patient had a bulletin board on the wall directly across from the foot of their bed with a bottom line showing their phone number and room number.

The trouble was, only patients with supernatural powers ala Superman, or those who thought to bring binoculars for their hospital stay, could read the phone number when they were in bed. My long-range vision is excellent, and I couldn’t read that number. In the first day or so of my stay, whenever anyone asked for my phone number I had to do something special and keep them waiting until I could answer that simple question. After that, I wised up and wrote the number on a tissue box kept with all the clutter on my bedside tray. Once in a while, I could fumble around and find the number there.

The solution to the irritating small problem seemed simple and almost without cost: Remove the paper strips inadequately displaying room and phone numbers on each patient’s bulletin board and replace them with strips printed with legible type. There was plenty of room on the boards for larger strips.

Mindful of my poor record in the suggestion rewards arena, I asked one of the RNs who was in charge of me if she could get a cash award, or at least a complimentary letter in her file, for submitting an improvement idea to Borgess. She didn’t know! Much literature exists on suggestion systems. A cardinal rule is to be sure all employees know about the system, how it works and who is in charge of it.

The nurse thought my idea had merit. She dialed a number. “Do you handle employee suggestions?” she asked. After several minutes of reply, she said, “OK, I’ll call her.” That call also had no immediate positive result. Maybe, my little thought ultimately will translate into an improvement at Borgess for patients and staff alike, but I doubt it.

The Borgess “Patient Guide” asks, “How are we doing? Where can we improve? Would you like a staff member to follow up with you about your comments?”

I dutifully sent a comment (not about the phone number suggestion) to the Customer Relations Department and asked to be contacted about it. That was six weeks ago. I’m still awaiting the response.

In seems reasonable that big organizations would make special efforts to tap the brainpower of experts who use their services. Hospitals get all sorts of professionals as guests. Why don’t they make a little extra effort to identify them and solicit their ideas?

At present, they seem content to just fall into a good idea once in a while. A recent news story reported how acclaimed designer Michael Graves, best known for his work for Target, came up with the ideas for a whole new suite of attractive and functional hospital furniture after a rare disease landed him in a hospital. Graves was said to have observed, “I don’t want to die in here because it’s too ugly.”

Graves took his ideas to Stryker, a leading manufacturer of medical equipment in Portage, Michigan, not far from my home. The result was shown in June at a prestigious furniture show at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. The furniture was displayed as the Stryker Patient Room Suite. We may assume Graves was rewarded handsomely for his ideas.

Guess you have to think big. One line of type a patient actually could read and other thoughts from a small-time communicator must be just too, well, small-time, to consider, even when the suggestions are freebies.

1 comment:

joared said...

Your last sentence identified the crux of the problem about getting ideas accepted and implemented -- if it's free it can't be good.

You must convince the organization to employ you as a consultant for which they must pay you "big bucks." All you have to do then is devise a number of changes -- change is the magic word -- which means something different than what is currently being done. This may well be something previously tried that was unsuccessful but new to the decision-makers, or it may simply be something new that may or may not be effective. You may now recommend your idea with the expectation it will be implemented because those who hired you must make change to justify their consultant fee expenditure.

No doubt you won't pay me for this information, because -- after all, it is free.