The Dark Side of Lean

The Secret Lives of Toyota Term Employees, Episode 6

By Jon Miller Updated on May 23rd, 2017

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.

  1. David Moles

    February 1, 2008 - 5:07 am

    “We’ve Got Some Spare Time, Let’s Build a Prius” might be the best blog title ever. (Even if it’s not exactly “continuous flow” production.)
    At this rate, I wonder how long it’ll be before Toyota starts bringing in outside consultants to teach them the Toyota Production System.

  2. Rob Bland

    February 1, 2008 - 5:37 am

    During the early years and into the adolescence stage of a suggestion scheme, the participation rate is a key measure. As the scheme reaches maturity the quality of suggestions should improve, quality and benefit to the business can then be a key measure. To continue to target employees to submit 2 suggestions per month with no ‘filter’ stage to understand the quality of the suggestions, provides no value to the business and can destroy the credibility of the scheme amongst the employees. Participation rates are only one; of a number of KPI’s that can be put in place to measure the success of any suggestion scheme.

  3. Shawn

    February 4, 2008 - 8:26 am

    Maybe ke_ii_suke should suggest that performing kaizen past a certain point is itself inefficient and creates more waste by creating ideas that have to be reviewed even though they are not of any value.

  4. Bill Smith

    February 5, 2008 - 7:04 am

    IBM, where I work is implementing lean and Gemba. Can you immagine a lumbering, old top heavy company like IBM actually being creative.? Sure, but only to a point and already they are creating problems in order to solve them and of course can never let go of the blame game. Solving problems will always take a back seat to blame. This is ingrained into IBM culture like DNA.

  5. Anonymous

    February 5, 2008 - 10:15 am

    While the metric of n suggestions per employee per month may have become bureaucratic, they do get one million improvement suggestions per year. I wonder what the yield rate is. That is how many of them are real (v/s the artificial ones reported on the blog)? I suspect that the actual yield value is still way higher than most companies.
    Should there be a ‘filter’? Will a filter add a judgment factor and thus discourage creative thinking (if not now, in a few years)? And will that result in a still lower yield?
    Nevertheless, ke_ii_suke does bring to light a good observation. Perhaps it is more significant, perhaps, than the marginal solutions he is mandated to make. It does sounds like an observation one ought to make standing in the Ohno Circle.
    I hope the next steps (5 whys, etc.) happen.

  6. bill

    February 8, 2008 - 5:56 pm

    kaizen is to the worker what AA is to the alcoholic,only the worker is required to participate and may not be a workaholic.12 steps,5 steps.they asks you to move half the distance to a first the move is possible,but when you get there,they pat you on the head as if you are a child,and tell you that you are further away then when you started.they hope you never stop to think that by moving half the distance closer,you will never reach the goal.
    if you state that observation,they again, smugly pat you on the head,then try to impress you(and themsevles) with a poorly translated phrase meant to sound like ancient Japanese wisdom,then bask in their own brilliance. soon they become so brilliant,they fail to see that all the preparing,studying and re-studying the preparing takes longer than the actual full journey to the goal.if you try to show them the way to the goal,they argue that A-it wasn’t half the way, and therefore B-you must have missed a better then reaches a point where, in trying to reach the goal (as actually happened at a Toyota plant) you die trying…or you give in and make a half-assed attempt.

  7. Jon Miller

    February 11, 2008 - 10:06 pm

    I’m sorry to hear your experience with kaizen has been so negative Bill.
    In my experience kaizen has been good thing although there’s can be dark side to it as with all things.
    Hopefully we can expose and fix the bad things about kaizen, suggestion systems or lean manufacturing and keep the good.
    I won’t smugly pat you on the head or use any Japanese words, but I do encourage you to look for the best in all things.

  8. Bryan

    February 20, 2008 - 7:21 am

    The mainstream North American accounts of the suggestion system (kaizen teian I & II, 40 years 20 million ideas, etc.) detail many filters in suggestions, screening quick versus long implementation, easy versus hard, quality vs. poor, etc. At the risk of drawing a conclusion without the facts, my first question would be if this worker has a supervisor or group leader coaching him through the creative idea suggestion system process. This is a key task for group leaders, is it not?

  9. Jon Miller

    February 20, 2008 - 9:06 pm

    You’re absolutely right, and I hope people fomr the Toyota factories in Japan where the suggestion system is stumbling will learn about and correct the situation soon. It seems to be more of a question of will than skill.

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