By E. D. Fales Jr.
(Please note this suggestion box article was first published in Dec 1963)
IN KENTUCKY the other day a man loaded his family aboard a new boat and shoved off for a long-overdue vacation. He'd paid for it all by dropping a numbered slip of paper into his company's suggestion box.
In Somerville, N.J., an RCA electrician made enough money from an idea to buy a second car. And in Hamilton, Ohio, recently a man who works for Fisher Body moved into a new home—mostly paid for with winnings from suggested ideas.
For decades, people have made fun of the office bright-idea box. Cartoonists still lampoon it. A recent cartoon shows a boss reaching into the box and drawing forth an idea. He reads it. "But which lake?" he asks.
Suddenly, however, suggestion boxes have stopped being funny. Today the hard-cash fact is: At least $20 million and possibly much more-will be paid out by U.S. companies this year for ideas. You're missing a bet if you don't get in on the money.
To be sure, not all awards will buy boats or cars. Far from it, many rub from $2 to $25. Some companies, like Carnation Milk, now give movie cameras, and two Carnation employees in Waverly, Iowa, recently won a Mexican trip.
But jackpot awards are getting to be common. A Whirlpool Corp. welder recently noticed that a lot of time was wasted because tanks of argon gas used by welders soon ran empty and had to be replaced. He wrote out a suggestion box note that said, in effect: "Quit using the little tanks. Install a big tank outside the shop and pipe the gas in to each welder." It was a simple idea-most prize winners are, as you will see-but it won $1,000.
Ed Sutherland, a young clerk for General Motors, recently suggested a gadget that would make it easier to manufacture a remote-control outside mirror for Pontiacs. Back came a check for $5,000 -GM's maximum prize.
When his idea was used for Tempest cars, Sutherland fielded another $3,333 prize.
Not even this can compare to what happened to Herbert Owens, 36, who is employed by IBM in Baltimore, Md. One day Owens tossed a small idea into the suggestion box and got a check for $25. Encouraged, he tried again, got another $25. On the third try, the ante went up to $35. He decided to try some more.
Cure for the slipping wheels. Owens knew that IBM had been having a small problem with some electronic computers. You've seen computer tape-recorder wheels that whirl one way, pause, and then reverse. These wheels are "searching" - rapidly scanning the tape for needed facts. To do this they must work with precision.
But under strain, some units were developing slight slippage. A wheel might not start quite fast enough - or when it stopped it might go just a hair too far. IBM machines must be right, so this was annoying to both company and customers.
It seemed to Owens that the trouble could he cured very simply - by inserting a small metal shim in the units during manufacture. It would have to be only a tiny thing a half-inch wide.
He submitted his idea in the suggestion box. IBM gave it a try. Suddenly the wheels worked with untiring accuracy. Maintenance was cut. Customers were happy.
IBM, which possesses one of the world's most successful managements, has an idea that employees should be well rewarded when they think up ways to save their company money or increase its profits. So it was that Owens, not long after his idea went in, received a staggering check: $32,000 for a simple idea.
Or consider Charles Glancey and Lawrence Livigni, two technicians who also work for IBM, at Poughkeepsie, N.Y. At about the same time, they suggested that IBM computers really didn't need 14 of their many printed circuits.
They even figured a way to get rid of them by a bit of rewiring. IBM found the computers worked just as well - and cost less to build. A few days after Owens got his $32,000 in Baltimore, the two in Poughkeepsie found themselves staring at a joint check for $56,013, believed to be the highest idea award ever made.
Welcome mat for ideas. There was a time when any idea an employee had might be automatically considered the property of the company. It didn't matter that you might have worked on it at home many nights. Even patents were appropriated. Result: Thinking was discouraged. Many took the attitude, "Well, let the brass worry about everything." Some employees day after day saw costly errors, or opportunities missed, and didn't bother to suggest changes.
But today an increasing number of companies are realizing that this is all wrong. To survive today - and grow - they know a company needs a steady flood of imaginative ideas. This helps explain why 300 of the biggest U.S. companies alone this year will shell out over $16 million for employee ideas. Ford will distribute in the neighborhood of $1 million, GM $3 million. Swift, U.S. Steel, General Electric, National Cash Register, Standard Oil will again be among heavy award givers. So will Boeing and United Airlines. Even the U.S. government, the Los Angeles municipal and county governments and other units - keenly aware of growing taxes - now are buying ideas that will help save the tax payers money.
How the suggestion boxes work. In some offices you merely write your idea, sign it and toss it in the slotted box. In others you use a numbered form. You don't sign it - in order to keep you from feeling later that favoritism might have influenced the decision. But you do keep a numbered tear-off slip - and claim your idea later.
From the suggestion box your idea may go to the boss, who will assign someone to look into it. Or, in a large company, it may go direct to a special suggestion committee with authority to make an immediate award, up to $25, assuming the idea is useful.
This award may be increased later by executive action, or if yours is a branch of a large corporation, by the main-headquarters suggestion committee. (Some concerns now even employ full-time suggestion-system staffs. )
What ideas are wanted? The answer is: Suggest anything that will help your company. It may be a new product, a better way of making something, a more efficient tool - or a way to use waste metal or plastic. Or it may even be something as simple as a new and simpler weekly report form. Men have won money just for suggesting that certain reports be eliminated - because they were no longer needed. A great deal of time - wasting procedure exists in many companies today just because no one has ever thought to do away with it.
Your idea could be a simpler filing system, a way of making jobs safer and more pleasant, anything to improve quality - or, above all - anything to cut costs. In Niles, Ill., recently, a Sears, Roebuck store employee, Ray Anderson, got tired of sending assistants up and down ladders to change burned-out light bulbs. "Why don't we just quit using bulbs that burn out so fast and switch to the new long-life bulbs?" he suggested. "They burn three times as long."
Sears found Anderson's idea could save hundreds of dollars a year in various stores. It sent him $1,239, his share of the savings.
In Los Angeles, recently, the McCulloch Corp. was having trouble with a high-speed flywheel-boring machine. The machine jacket was effectively cooled by a circulating water-base coolant. But the fast carbide bit was cooled bv a powerful air blast. At high speed the air blast was insufficient. The bit would get too hot and break. Hence the machine had to run at slow speed—a waste of time and money.
It seemed to operator Clyde Love that the solution was easy. "Why not tap some of the liquid coolant inside the machine itself and mix it in the air blast?" he suggested. The idea was tried, saved the company $3,224 in 12 months, and Love received a check for $403. He also got another, a dividend that also sometimes comes to idea-givers: a promotion.
The obvious suggestion box ideas... In GM's Tech Center at Warren, Mich., is a big overhead crane with eight control buttons: NORTH, EAST, SOUTH, WEST, RAISE, LOWER, START, STOP. But the trouble is, not everybody who uses it knows which way is north.
Technician Fred Gutterman knew that someone might cause serious damage some day by sending the crane east when it was supposed to go west. So he suggested a precaution: paint a compass rose on the crane, His award: $50.
State Farm Insurance Co. recently paid a woman employee $10 for an even simpler suggestion box idea. When visitors kept trying to use the wrong door she suggested "Paint a sign: EMPLOYEES ONLY." An absurdly simple idea, but no one had thought of it, and she collected $10.
Don't scoff at such little ideas. Some employees make lots of money from them. David Fraser is an Illinois Central Railroad employee at Markham, Ill. Waiting for a train one day at Fulton, Ky., he looked around, listened to what people were saying, watched what they did. In 30 minutes he wrote down 12 ideas, cashed in on seven for a total of about $70. Out of such alertness Fraser to date has collected $5 000.
Where do you get suggestion box ideas? Fraser's boss, the Illinois Central, offers this clue: "Question the rightness of everything." Why are things done this way? Why does it take so long? How good are the tools? Can a certain step be eliminated?
Eli Lilly & Co. is one of America's big pharmaceutical houses. Recently it was having trouble, in one manufacturing process, with a carbon slurry filter of a type long used. One employee, Jim Hodson, suggestion box idea was: "Just eliminate it." His idea was tried, and it was found that in the present process the filter was actually no longer needed. Hodson got $1,276.
Can a design be improved? Or can different - and cheaper - materials be used without impairing usefulness or quality? Anton Forster is a dispatcher at the Fisher Body plant in Cleveland. It occurred to him one day that packing-carttons, braced with the usual two-by-four lumber studs, were heavy, expensive and cumbersome. "Let's try rolled cardboard tubes," he suggested.
Fisher Body gave the idea a try. The new tubes were strong, lighter, and so much cheaper and quicker to install that Forster was paid $2,500.
Other suggestion box ideas grow out of sheer frustration. A Navy mechanic, assigned to repair truck tires, got tired of waiting for someone to come along and help him lift the heavy wheels back on the axles. He doped out a small wheel jack that would do the job for him—and got $177.
But leave it to the ladies to come up with sheer feminine ingenuity. A female operator for Thompson Products noticed recently that a power belt that drove her machine was fraying at the edges. This so upset her sense of tidiness that she applied an old female fix-all: She dabbed the frayed edge with nail polish. Then someone persuaded her to drop the idea in the suggestion box.
When the suggestion committee got it, it seemed like a crazy idea, but luckily someone took it seriously enough to give it a try. Today, the power belts in Thompson plants are lacquered at the edges. Now they not only look tidy but last much longer - so much longer, in fact, that Thompson figured its savings at $43,000 a year and sent its neat lady operator a thumping $6,000.
The best prize of all
In Los Angeles one day Fred Deamer and Ray Grant, electricians for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, jointly suggested that an alarm be put on trucks—to sound whenever they began pulling electric wires or stringing them on poles.
The idea was immediately tried out. Two months later an employee nearly lost his life when trapped by a wire about to be hoisted. The alarm went off, warning hint just in time. The two men got cash awards — but their real reward was the greatest of all: Their suggestion box idea had saved a human life.