Constance Prunty just hated to see the outdated cigarettes coming back to the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. plant where she worked in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"I thought this must be costing us so much money," said Ms. Prunty, a 15-year employee.
Then she got to thinking -- and thinking and thinking.
A couple of months went by before Ms. Prunty, then a distribution specialist in R. J. Reynolds' Whitaker Park Warehouse, had an idea to track inventory weekly instead of monthly so that merchandise wouldn't grow old in distribution centers nationwide.
R. J. Reynolds had a system for handling employee suggestions, and Ms. Prunty knew if there was merit to her idea, it would get a fair hearing.
Within weeks of placing her idea in the plant's suggestion box, someone contacted her for more details. She ended up working with the company's computer department to develop a program in corporating her idea, which went online in 1991.
In December 1989, Ms. Prunty, 43, won $25,000, the company's highest award for an employee suggestion.
American companies' quality programs, competitive pressures and the recent economic downturn are driving more and more employers to the dusty suggestion boxes that have been hanging on shop walls for decades.
The Chicago-based National Association of Suggestions Systems, whose members are companies with employee-suggestion programs, says the adoption rate for employee ideas increased to 37 percent in 1991 from 24 percent in 1987.
Last year was also the fifth straight year that employee suggestions saved U.S. employers $2 billion, the association says.
For those ideas, the association's 1,000 members, who employ more than 6 million workers, paid $164 million in incentives.
"Today's manager has no choice but to involve their people in the process," said Cynthia McCabe, the association's president and Ohio Bell Telephone Co.'s employee-involvement manager.
"It's a survival tactic. The days when the manager was expected to have all the answers are gone," she said.
Ms. McCabe, whose company saved $3.5 million through employees' suggestions in the past two years, said companies with formal employee-suggestion programs have improved quality and customer service, cut costs, and increased sales and revenues.
Helen Ruddiman, a 20-year Mecklenburg County, N.C., employee, was honored in December for an idea that is now making more than $7,000 a year for the county government.
Ms. Ruddiman, a clerical supervisor in the Building Standards Department, suggested that the county charge lawyers, architects and contractors a small fee for researching department files for them.
"Somebody hires them to find this information, and the county was doing the legwork," said Ms. Ruddiman, who got a check for $1,695, a quarter of the amount generated during the first year the idea was implemented.
"I didn't think it was fair to the taxpayer to be doing this for them."
Tim Isley, R. J. Reynolds employee benefits administration manager, said the tobacco company annually gets more than 2,000 suggestions and adopts about 400 for savings of about $400,000.
He said R. J. Reynolds won't release how much is saved from individual ideas, but that Ms. Prunty's idea resulted in substantial savings.
Mr. Isley said employee suggestions have brought improvements in manufacturing and in working conditions, have eliminated waste and increased conservation at R. J. Reynolds.
"Here's a way for employees to improve the conditions in their work area and help save the company money too," he said.
Ms. Prunty, who was promoted to associate distribution analyst in March, is at work on another idea.
She said her prize motivated her co-workers to suggest ideas that resulted in considerable savings in her department.