In 1951 Toyota launched their Creative Idea Suggestion System. It was largely a copy of suggestion systems that were in place in U.S. companies at the time, namely the Ford Motor Company. Toyota made some notable innovations to it over the years, but most importantly, they stuck with it. The suggestion system is one aspect of a Lean management system many companies struggle with, stumble around or never get to when implementing the Toyota Production System.
How successful was Toyota when they first implemented their Suggestion System? I recently came across a document that was distributed to Toyota employees in 1951, when the suggestion system was launched. It asked all workers for their ideas, and aimed to answer questions such as:
– Why are we asking for your creative ideas?
– What type of ideas are we looking for?
– Who can submit ideas?
– How do we submit our ideas?
– How will the ideas be evaluated?
– What happens when ideas are accepted?
In the “Why are we asking for your creative ideas?” section, the document starts out with a fairly typical statement that “progress has been made in reducing cost and improving quality but we can still remove a lot of waste and improve quality.” This is followed by the curious sentence that, “If we look carefully, even American automotive factories there is nothing remarkable about the production system. The accumulation of the joint efforts of every single person in the company is what makes them so productive.” Most of Japanese industry was driven by the mantra of “catch up and surpass the US” in the post-war years. By luck or by design, Toyota leadership concluded this was due to “the accumulation of the joint efforts of every single person” in U.S. companies, rather than simply demand outstripping supply in a resource-rich post-War U.S.
One sentence explains that the suggestion system will be different from the style of “idea festivals” held periodically in the past, but will be an ongoing and widespread effort. There is an implied admission that previous efforts were inconsistent, and in part for show. This section ends by stating several times very clearly that Toyota will pay for these ideas and act quickly to implement them.
In the section under “Who can submit ideas?” there is a very practical solution to a common conundrum of suggestion systems, namely the fact that in the early stages some people will benefit from the fact that there may be a large number of previously trapped, frozen or ignored ideas and suggestions for improvement which will now be freed. This is a good thing, except for the fact that many times these are not kaizen ideas so much as people in a dysfunctional system finally being allowed to do their normal job. The typical unenlightened reaction is either management halting the suggestion system, reluctant to make large payouts for ideas they have squelched in the past, or there a sense of unfairness that one group of people are richly rewarded for picking low-hanging fruit when they are finally just do their job “normally” and sensibly.
The Toyota document states that if the suggestion or creative idea was one that was “normally expected in the course of work” then these ideas would not be considered, unless they were exceptional. In other words, don’t ask for a reward for just doing your job.
Who can submit ideas? The Toyota document said any employee can, regardless of the type of work they do, but in the beginning managers were excluded. Perhaps this initial exclusion was to roll it out in stages, or perhaps it was to emphasize that the Creative Idea Suggestion System was meant to be a people development system where managers were responsible for coaching and implementing ideas of the front line workers in production, administration and engineering, rather than a competition for ideas between management and workers.
How do we submit our ideas? It says very clearly “put it in the box” and specifies where these suggestion boxes are. It would be interesting to know how and when this evolved away from the box to the suggestion system process of today. Three other points in this section that were noteworthy: 1) If you can’t write it yourself, it’s OK to have a shop floor engineer help you, 2) we accept verbal suggestions, and 3) there is no need to gain your manager’s permission before making a suggestion. In other words, no excuses.
Toyota’s Creative Idea Suggestion System: 56 years and still going strong. Continuity is power.