Old suggestion box, in streamlined form, pays off for companies

David Stallings had a bright idea. Bright enough to save his company $65,000.

Mr. Stallings, who works in the shipping division of Whirlpool Corporation's Fort Smith, Ark., manufacturing plant, thought the company should try a new, cost-saving way of shipping its refrigerators. The idea worked.

The tip was delivered via the company's ''suggestion system,'' a relatively advanced version of the old suggestion box that often sat in company hallways gathering dust or prank suggestions for exorbitant wage increases.

Now many suggestion boxes are being updated and put to good use. Recession-besieged administrators are welcoming the employee input. And workers gain from of their ideas, by rewards from the company or just from improved job efficiency. Greg Johnson, associate editor of Industry Week magazine, says suggestion systems have been overlooked by some management personnel as a useful source of cost-saving solutions.

''Companies have been using (suggestion systems), but they let them fall by the wayside,'' Mr. Johnson said. ''When the recession slowdown came along, they began looking for ways to increase productivity and lower costs, so they turned to these suggestion systems and revamped them.''

According to Oliver Hallett, executive secretary of the National Association of Suggestion Systems (NASS), a successful suggestion system contains five important elements: top management support; supervisory support; frequent system promotion; entry-level employee system use; and middle-management evaluation. ''If any one of those five are missing, the suggestion system will limp along,'' he says.

Absence of one or more of these elements usually causes an increase in turnaround time, he notes. Turnaround time is the lapse between the time an employee turns in an idea and when he receives an ''adopt'' or ''non-adopt'' decision on it, he explains. If employees don't hear feedback on their suggestions, they could lose interest in the program.

If this happens, companies may be missing out on a particularly good resource. Mr. Hallett notes that on average every dollar invested in a properly run suggestion system reaps at least $5 in cost savings.

In recent years, more companies have phoned NASS for information about suggestion systems than ever before. ''It is believed that suggestion systems are much more in use today than they were 10 yeQrsago,'' Mr. Hallett says.

Some companies have changed the way they manage their syggestion systems. For example, the management at Whirlpool's Fort Smith plant enlarged the focus of its program to include all employees. Robert White, vice-president of the division, reports that the effort, which has grown until it is saving millions of dollars each year, has been successful in more ways than saving on costs. ''They (the employees) are involved in the business of making our operation more competitive today to provide for stability and growth in the future,'' Mr. White says.

Other companies continue to use the systems they've always had. At the International Harvester plant in East Moline, Ill., there are two suggestion systems, one for hourly employees, the other for management. Beverly Wilson, production research engineer at the plant, maintains that the managerial suggestion program has been a financial help to the company. International Harvester is trying to work its way out of a crushing debt. A recent suggestion for reevaluating shipping techniques could save the company a six-digit sum in shipping costs, according to Mr. Wilson.

Allen Bergerson, corporate coordinator of suggestion systems at the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, N.Y., knows how beneficial a suggestion system can be. The Kodak system is the oldest continuous setup in the country, Mr. Bergerson says, with founder George Eastman handing out the first award ($2) in 1898. Of 94,721 suggestions submitted last year, 31,000 were adopted.

Kodak rewards suggestions with money, but not all companies do. David Stallings, the Whirlpool employee with the $65,000 suggestion, was rewarded with an executive parking space and named ''outstanding contributor among hourly employees'' for 1981at the annual cost-improvement awards banquet.

''It all comes down to each of us doing the best that we can in our jobs,'' Mr. Stallings said. ''As far as I'm concerned, saving and reducing costs is everyone's business. Cost saving makes my job easier.''

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