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The Suggestion Box

06/22/2009 - 00:00 AM

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With service order no. 3, of May 13, 1949, the “suggestion box” was introduced at Stipel, an in-house system of collaboration between employees and management that had the aim of “allowing all workers to put before the Management, in writing, their suggestions for improving the service, productivity, the various processes, the use of materials and machinery, increasing the number of subscribers, safety at work, the organisation of the stores, maintenance, etc.” Authors of accepted suggestions were to be rewarded with a sum of money set, from time to time, by the Management.  
The first “suggestion boxes,” though called by other names, had been adopted in several French production spheres as early as the end of the 19th century, and, in the following decades, spread to other European countries and to America. However, it was only after the Second World War that these practices were embedded in company strategies, and were also developed widely in Italy, where they were adopted by, amongst others, many IRI (the Institute for Industrial Reconstruction) companies, including TIMO (the Italian Middle East telephone company), TELVE (the Venetian telephone company), TETI (the Tyrrhenian telephone company), the steel company, ILVA, and the national Italian telephone company, SIP.
Between 1949 and 1959, Stipel’s employees put forward a total of around two thousand suggestions and, of these, around 350 were rewarded by the Management for a total sum of 2,958,000 Lire.

Not entirely satisfied with these results, in 1958 the Stipel Management decided to set up a Commission of Inquiry, charged with subjecting the “suggestion box” to an in-depth examination. (The said Commission was, moreover, charged with investigating the introduction by Stipel of the T.W.I. – Training Within Industry – course, dealing with the “Improvement of Working Methods.” T.W.I. was created in 1940 in the United States as a service provided by the Department of War to industries connected with the war effort, in a drive to reduce the loss of enlisted personnel in the armed forces, through the development of new working and training methods).
The outcome of this examination was the “new suggestion system,” which officially came into force from January 1, 1960, and which was publicised through company magazines and the publication of a leaflet distributed to all employees in subsequent years.
The main modifications to the old system consisted of the abolition of anonymous suggestions, the obligation to put forward suggestions through hierarchical channels, and a precise definition of the times necessary for the Co.Ex.Su. (the Commission for the Examination of Suggestions) to evaluate them, as well as criteria for deciding the amount of any rewards.
The new methods established that the suggestions should be presented on a form consisting of three parts. The first part was for the proposal itself, with any attachments, and this had to be sent directly to the boss, finally reaching the Co.Ex.Su. by way of a strictly hierarchical route. The second, which contained just the outline of the proposal, was sent directly to the Commission, while the third was the receipt, to be kept by the employee.
These three forms answered the twin needs of establishing a series of hierarchical controls over the suggestions, without, however, leaving the employees fearful they would be cheated out of their ideas.

One of the brakes on the suggestions system, according to the Commission of Inquiry, was, indeed, this widespread fear among employees that their bosses, who were less than enthusiastic about a system that allowed their subordinates to shine, would steal the workers’ ideas. Other obstacles were: the mind-set of routine, and the conviction that it wasn’t up to the employees to improve the work, indifference towards the interests of the company, lack of self-confidence, the difficulty in writing up the proposal, the belief that the proposal might elicit a certain opposition from the bosses, the fear of putting one’s head above the parapet, or being seen in a bad light by colleagues, or the fear of putting them at a disadvantage.
The new system met with incredible success and, in the first eleven months, 492 suggestions were put forward, more than twice the number that had put forward annually under the old system. The influx of suggestions was such that it immediately created problems for the Co.Ex.Su. in carrying out the work of assessing them, so much so that, in the end, it was unable to meet the three-month deadline that had been set as the maximum time to reply to an employee.
In later years, the new suggestion system fizzled out, to the extent that an article in “Selezionando,” in 1968, bemoaned that “it has settled into a quiet life, without shocks (but also without much satisfaction).” The last list of “prize-winning suggestions” to be published in one of the in-house magazines appeared in 1975 in “Selezionando Sip.”