Best practice

Personnel Today’s monthly series reveals how managers tackle business problems and enhance performance. In this issue Graham Holt, suggestions scheme manager at The Co-operative Bank, explains how a successful suggestions scheme can motivate individuals and save your company millions of pounds

The Co-operative Bank is driven by the belief that it is possible to conduct business in a socially and environmentally responsible manner – and our results prove it is achievable. This philosophy extends to every aspect of the company’s business. The very basis of a co-operative is that all members work together for the benefit of the group as a whole. In practice, this means involving as many people as possible in decisions about how the company is run and how it can develop.

This utopia is very difficult to achieve, since it relies on all staff feeling sufficiently confident and motivated to take an active part in company life and decision-making. Undeterred, some years ago The Co-operative Bank embarked on a suggestions scheme that fulfilled the company objectives to use the skills of the individual, for the benefit of the organisation.

The listening bank

The Co-operative Bank has always been open to the ideas and suggestions of its staff. But without a consistent approach to dealing with employees’ ideas, the real benefits of these suggestions could not be fully realised.

Before the system was properly managed, we found that staff were not motivated to come forward with their ideas. Good suggestions, though taken seriously, were often taken out of their hands and implemented without input from the originator, and there was no mechanism for rewarding good ideas, even if they led to savings.

When we initiated the scheme in 1992, we were keen to listen to all ideas centrally, regardless of size or practicability. We thought this was the fairest way to hear what everyone had to say, but soon found ourselves dealing with a lot of "small step improvements". These were just as important as the big ideas, but could be dealt with locally within departments. It meant we were finding it difficult to see major ideas through in the way we hoped, so we introduced a number of steps to regulate the process and get the most out of good ideas.

Search for a star

The first step was separating the ideas into those that were useful for a particular department and those that had a positive impact on the whole bank. The latter could be entered on the Star Scheme.

Star Scheme suggestions can impact on all aspects of company life. Crucially, the person who initiates the suggestion sees their idea right through to completion, taking complete ownership.

Suggestions are submitted in writing and then discussed with a line manager. This way, people who find it difficult to articulate suggestions face to face have the best chance of explaining themselves. It also means line managers have time to consider the suggestion before making their comments. If a suggestion is not considered viable, the person is informed immediately and given a full explanation of the rationale.

When entered into the Star Scheme, the suggester gets support from their divisional administrator and a Key Contact – a recognised expert in the field in which the suggestion might be most effective. The suggester takes on a quasi-project management role and has complete control over potential implementation of their suggestion. The team works together to implement the idea and evaluate its success. Having control over their own idea means we can avoid the "black hole" syndrome – where an idea gets lost in the system – and any delays in implementation are appreciated by all those involved.

Evaluation is critical to the process, as the initiator is awarded 5 per cent of the first year’s proven savings from their suggestion – up to a maximum £25,000 – although money has not been found to be the major motivator. A poll found that most people wanted to see the bank succeed, and got a kick from seeing their suggestion put into practice.

Culture club

The Co-operative Bank began its scheme as part of a wider programme aimed at improving company communication, internal process management and customer service. A successful suggestion scheme cannot work without a culture of listening and cooperation at every level, it cannot be used to solve poor internal communications issues; it will only make them worse. But a good scheme, implemented within a positive company culture, will enhance communication and be beneficial to all parties.

Since the scheme started, The Co-operative Bank has saved over £10,000,000 from our staff’s good ideas and two ideas have been awarded the maximum £25,000. Star Scheme ideas not only save us money but also help the environment and improve customer care. Successful suggestions have ranged from a huge money-saver in our fraud department to reducing waste paper by replacing notepaper with wipe-off cards.

We have been able to keep up the momentum of the scheme by publicising good ideas in our in-house newspaper, as well as by introducing different themes. About a dozen ideas are seen through the scheme every year, and countless other suggestions are successfully implemented in their departments.


Top tips: Implementing a successful suggestions scheme

  • Decide on standards for your scheme and put them in writing. Think about how and when you will respond to suggestions. Always explain why you have rejected a suggestion. This will help staff trust the scheme.

  • Centralise the policy and strategy of the scheme, but involve line managers in its operation. Their support is crucial.

  • You will have thought about rewarding the person who came up with the suggestion, but don’t forget the rest of the team whose job it is to see it through.

  • Find a way of giving proper recognition for a job well done. If an award is being given, do it publicly. Remember, it is not necessarily the money that motivates, it is the feeling of having done something good for the organisation, which should be applauded.

  • Review your scheme regularly to keep it fresh. Update your practices in line with organisation structure or philosophy.

  • Try to keep your scheme in the forefront of people’s minds by publicising successful ideas – be they large or small.

  • You don’t need a central budget to pay for the scheme. The department that most benefits from the suggestion can pay for its implementation. In this way the financial calculations are more likely to be correct and ideas put into practice.

  • Be inventive and creative in your awards. Money is not the only way to reward a job well done. Your staff should realise you want big ideas, not just big savings.


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