When Bank of America introduced its "Ideas in Action" program, an updated employee suggestion box, the staff found lots of ways for the bank to save money.

Tim Repass, an employee in the purchasing department, suggested eliminating the middleman when the bank orders furniture and equipment. The bank acts as its own dealer now, and saves the 20% fee that the middleman used to take. The total saving is expected to top $1 million.

When employees have a chance to put their two cents, banks can realize great savings.

The 1,000 corporate members of the National Association for Suggestion Systems alone saved $2 billion last year, thanks to money-saving tips from their workers. Banks and other financial services companies accounted for $35.7 million of that figure.

Old Idea Has New Importance

Suggestion systems have long been part of the corporate environment, but never before have they been so important to the bottom line.

"There is more of a focus on cost reduction and maximum utilization of all a company's resources," said Cyndi McCabe, president of the association. "There are other benefits, too, such as increasing revenue and improving safety, product quality, and customer service. Companies also see improved morale among employees and a better relationship between management and nonmanagement."

BankAmerica Corp. boasts of one of the oldest suggestion programs in the industry, starting with the brainstorm of Frank Risso, chauffeur of A.P. Giannini, the bank's founder. Mr. Risso received a $1 reward in 1928 for suggesting that the bank issue its own travelers checks.

Saving $20 Million a Year

Bank of Boston has also had success with its program, which started in 1990 and garnered 1,300 ideas. More than 400 of them have been adopted, saving the bank about $20 million a year.

"The program barely cost half a million," said Michael Simmons, executive vice president and group executive of technology and operations. "I'd say our return was adequate."

The costs were for the awards to employees, as well as for promotional items such as brochures and posters.

Bank of Boston is a prime example of how a financial institution has used a suggestion system to help it bounce back from an economic downturn.

"The bank was losing money, and everyone was concerned. We had just announced our first layoffs ever," Mr. Simmons said. "The program reduced our cost of doing business, and we even saw our stock go up."

Concerted Effort Needed

Despite these success stories, managers should bear in mind that putting a program together requires more than nailing a suggestion box to a wall in the lunch room.

The suggestion systems group recommends getting the commitment of senior management, promoting an environment that is open to new ideas, and steadily marketing the program to employees.

A committee of representatives from each department should regularly review submissions and respond promptly to every one so employees don't get the feeling that ideas are being ignored.

A quick note thanking those who make suggestions and informing them that the idea is being reviewed encourages workers to keep participating.

Recognition, if Not Cash

Those who suggest ideas that are adopted should be rewarded either with cash, if possible, or with a mention in the company newsletter. Other incentives are possible. Bank of Boston, for example, awards shares of the bank's stock.

Before implementing a suggestion system, do a little homework.

"Companies should look at a variety of organizations, make comparisons, then look at their own company," said Ms. McCabe. "Try testing the program in one pocket of the organization to really be sure the design that's chosen is what works."

According to data from the suggestion systems group, the average program has a 17% participation rate. The rate for implementing ideas is 37%.

Programs Take Up Time

Bank managers who are considering implementing such programs should be aware that they are time-consuming.

Bank of America, for example, receives 4,000 to 5,000 suggestions annually. The bank has a network of more than 450 evaluators to determine which suggestions will be implemented.

"You always have to be sensitive to the fact that this is an added workload on line managers," said Katie Jarman, a vice president of human resources at the bank.

The Bank of Old York, Willow Grove, Pa., found that going with a month-long program made more sense for its needs.

The program, designed by Advanced Management Group of Helena, Calif., received 155 suggestions from the bank's 160 employees. As a result, the bank saves $8,000 a year.

Short and Sweet

A shorter program also relieves the need to keep promoting and publicizing to keep employees interested. Some companies report that long-term suggestion systems tend to run out of steam, attracting fewer good ideas over time.

To get the program back on track, try following Ms. McCabe's advice: "One way to give the program a shot in the arm is to look at your goals, then promote a campaign around them."

Focusing on a specific topic, such as customer service or workplace safety, should help release a new flood of ideas, she said.

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