Tomorrow is Creative Idea Suggestion Submission Day
What happens after a term employee at Toyota becomes a regular employee? Is this the happy ending when the assembly line workers finally feel the warm embrace of President Watanabe? Does repetition of the 60 second takt time scripted to a work sequence of value added motions become any more bearable?
The blogger ke_ii_suke is a Japanese male, approximately 21 years of age and a regular employee of Toyota. He was a Toyota term employee until he was hired on as full time. While a term employee he ran a blog but ran into some trouble with his employer for the content on his website. He discontinued that website and started a new blog We’ve Got Some Spare Time, Let’s Build a Prius (どうせ暇だし、プリウスでも作ろうぜ) to maintain the anonymity of his new employer.
This particular post (in Japanese) is titled “Tomorrow is Creative Idea Suggestion Submission Day” and starts with the line:
“Finding improvements points in a process you are satisfied with is a nearly impossible. It is like conducting hazard detection training about being in the sleepy comfort of a down-filled futon. If you leave the futon you might trip on a beer can or a computer cable, but lying in the futon you can detect no hazards.”
These seemingly wise words are in fact a complaint.
“Perhaps I could point out “If you roll to the right three times you could fall out bed, or that an earthquake could destroy the bed. Even after these hazards have been removed through kaizen, we must identify further points of improvement. That is the suggestion system.”
This ex-term employee at Toyota, now a regular employee, writes that he must submit two kaizen ideas per month. He writes that he would like to find more improvements, but he cannot find them. One of his colleagues finds 9 kaizen items per month. How does this colleague find these problems? He creates the problems. Some of his colleagues move the location of a parts container 3 centimeters each month, making a round trip to the original location every 6 months. Others write the same problem every month, just using different words.
“Am I supposed to copy these bad customs?”
The struggle for ke_ii_suke is that his process has been so refined by kaizen ideas from the efforts of previous employees that he can’t even play the game of traveling the box 3 centimeter at a time, or writing the same kaizen idea over and over in different ways. He struggles to find thing to improve. Looking back over his previous suggestion forms, their titles are all minor improvements such as “1 second reduction” or “2 seconds reduction” or “30 centimeters closer” or “take one less step”. With the exception of a “reduction of 4 meters” by relocation a parts rack, all of his ideas are within 2 meters.
“However, many small improvements can add up to big improvement” he writes. The summary of the total improvement impact of all creative idea suggestion system submissions is:
Time reduced = 83 seconds
Distance reduced = 29 meters
“The world is full of mysteries” he writes with subtle irony. “It appears that my efforts to shorten the time it takes to perform my 57 seconds of work have enabled me to performed my tasks in -26 seconds.” All of this in a workspace of 5.5 meters. He speculates that veteran workers who submit 9 ideas per month must have jobs that take “minus several weeks” to perform.
On the one hand it is impressive that there are processes at Toyota which are so refined as to cause workers to struggle to find even the smallest improvements. On the other hand it’s appalling that the creative idea suggestion system seems to have become a lifeless bureaucratic relic in this corner of the Toyota manufacturing world. Are the supervisors and managers at this plant too busy to audit and root out the fake suggestions, and to address the root causes of the workers’ struggle to fine improvements? Or do the managers too struggle to find ways to help workers find problems? Either way, this is a problem Toyota’s management should be made aware of so they can address this.