Toyota’s Suggestion System: 56 Years and Still Going Strong

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.

12 Comments

  1. Chris Nicholls

    December 10, 2007 - 7:11 am

    Hi Jon
    Thank you for two very interesting blogs first about Hungary and second regarding the Toyota Suggestion Scheme. At Ricoh in the UK we have an active suggestion scheme very much modelled on the Toyota System principles. We are always striving to improve our scheme. We are active members of Ideas UK the British based organisation for companies who run suggestion schemes. We get benchmark information from networking and sharing with other members. Unfortunately neither Toyota, Honda nor Nissan are members. Can you give me benchmark information about the performance or effectiveness of Toyota’s Suggestion scheme in order for Ricoh to set new targets for employee involvement, rewards and benefits. Or give me a contact in any Toyota Organisation willing to share information with me.
    Very Best Regards
    Chris

  2. Jon Miller

    December 10, 2007 - 11:52 pm

    Hi Chris,
    I’ve heard numbers like 99% implementation of ideas and 1+ idea per worker per month as benchmarks, but these numbers vary by country.
    What these numbers say is “TOTAL involvement” and “all ideas WILL BE DEVELOPED into actionable ones” so rather than quantify it metrically, the underlying philosophy is key I think.
    You might try Toyota’s corporate PR people either in the UK or Japan. They tend to be forthcoming with this sort of information.

  3. Ethan H.

    December 11, 2007 - 10:36 am

    Jon:
    I am interested in knowing more about the Toyota Suggestion System and how it can be implemented in healthcare. Do you know of any healthcare institutes using this model? Also, is there anyone you know of at Toyota (US) that I could contact for more information? I appreciate your help.
    Thanks,
    Ethan

  4. Jon Miller

    December 12, 2007 - 9:52 pm

    Hi Ethan,
    I’m glad you are interested in learning more about Toyota’s suggestion system, or healthcare in particular.
    No, I don’t know of any healthcare institutes that are doing it. I’ll be happy to let you know as soon as I hear of one.
    I’ll be happy to give you more information, or have one of our team members from Toyota do so. However, Toyota doesn’t like consultants referring people in to specific people. Try their PR department, or general affairs.

  5. Troy

    July 3, 2008 - 5:39 pm

    Hi Chris
    I was an employee of Toyota for a good number of years and am now a Lean manufacturing specialist. In the years I worked at Toyota there was an expectation from shopfloor members of 2 ideas per month, with regards to rewards and benefits if you managed 2 per month you rated as effective at your annual review if you didn’t achieve your two, you rated as less than effective and this was reflected in your salary review.
    As far as involvement with the implementation of ideas, if a member raised an idea he was expected to take as large a part in its implementation as was possible, if this meant overtime, time away from process etc. then so be it.
    I have also seen written but am not sure of the source that in 1993 Toyota generated 1.5m ideas in Japan alone. 98% implemented by the teams at an average cost of $3.00.
    I hope this snippet of information is beneficial.

  6. Jan

    August 11, 2008 - 12:01 pm

    Troy,
    your reply is very sursprising to me, because I thought that in TOYOTA ideas are not obligatory. 2 ideas/month is quite a lot espacially if you consider big plant.
    But I have a question regarding Jon’s statement that TOYOTA doesn’t reward for ideas “normally expected in the course of work”. Can you refer to this? It is hard to imagine how you can divide idea from being in or outside normal scope, especially that KAIZEN aims to focus on your normal scope. I am confused…

  7. Gary

    October 19, 2009 - 10:41 am

    We looked at the Toyota approach to employee engagement, and worked to figure out how it could fit into American companies. Not surprisingly it turns out it has to be Good, Fast and Cheap. We then developed the web based IdeasCount approach. We’d rather call it and Idea System, both to get away from just “suggestions” and to leave the baggage of those systems behind. We are implementing in manufacturing, education, telecommunications and health care is to come soon. I know this is kind of a pitch, but this could be big for American organizations, and I need to get the word out.

  8. Blanca Serrano

    October 21, 2009 - 3:28 pm

    Mi compañía está interesada en iniciar con el sitema de sugerencias, basandose en el modelo de Toyota. Por favor me pueden decir si en algún lugar Toyota publico como dio inicio con el modelo, cuál es la logistica y como da seguimiento. Agradezco la información.

  9. bill wright

    March 9, 2010 - 2:20 pm

    Is it possible the Toyota CPU’s can be accessed by a G3 or G4 enabled cell phone? A hacker can raise some really rotten stuff.

  10. jenny

    July 18, 2010 - 5:48 pm

    Hola, yo trabaje en toyota manejando el sistema de ideas y sugerencias, tengo mucha información al respecto pero mi inglés realmente es muy malo para poder explicarlo por escrito. puedo responder la mayoria de las preguntas que tengan sobre el sistema y asçí presatrles la ayuda para su implematación
    Saludos

  11. Peter Ong

    June 21, 2011 - 1:11 am

    I suggest Toyota produce All-Terrain-Vehicle(6 wheeler amphibian car)name it Toyota Savannah to take a major role in this uncertain natural environment change and can meet massive task in order to protect more human lives (car user)especially during earthquake,floods,landslide or for rescuer because conventional 4W-drive are not effective and efficient anymore for today’s environmental-challenge.

  12. Exo

    August 30, 2011 - 5:36 am

    I suggest Toyota standardize the size and shape of the battery for their electric vehicles (EVs)? Kind of like a massive AA battery. That way, in stead of finding a place to charge our NiMh car batteries for 11 hours, we pull into a servo, they pull a pre-charged ‘AA’ battery out of a warehouse, swap it with our depleted one, we pay them for the power it cost them to charge it and a nominal surcharge for their service, and away we go.
    We can always plug-in and recharge at home, but being able to quickly swap out a depleted battery could be an easy way to solve the current range (i.e., mileage) problems we face with current EVs.