Key Points for Managing Kaizen Idea Systems

A sustained kaizen idea suggestion system can be one of the most powerful ways to keep people engaged in continuous improvement. Yet even after 50+ years, Toyota can struggle with this in some parts. Below are the three most common questions we encounter on the topic of implementing and managing suggestion systems or kaizen idea generation systems.
“How do we manage kaizen idea submission and evaluation?” There is no formula or single answer to what works when it comes to collecting and evaluating kaizen ideas. As a rule there should be 1) no suggestion box, 2) a simple suggestion form, and 3) team-based dialog to evaluate ideas.
The first two are important in that they remove barriers. The kaizen idea often dies in the box, but handed from person to person, it lives. It may not be practical for every single person to physically hand their idea to a team leader each time, and if so there may be the need for a “box” of sorts where the ideas go. But the best way is to think in terms of “no suggestion box” and rather in terms of a continuous flow from idea generation to evaluation, testing and implementation. There is nothing wrong with the idea generator keeping the idea in their head or on a piece of paper in their pocket until they can review it with their team leader face to face, instead of putting it in a box.
The review of the ideas should be done at level of the team rather than by a committee removed from the actual place and actual situation. Team leaders must be trained in facilitating the generation and development of kaizen ideas. There should be a clear method of escalating the review process to the next level of management should the idea be beyond the scope of the team leader to approve.
“How do we implement the kaizen ideas which are accepted?” If the ideas are kept local and small, the individual or team who generates the kaizen idea will be able to implement the idea most of the time. When it is an issue of skill or ability to make the changes either physically or in terms of macros, computer code or revision of procedures and standards, the long-term solution is to cross-train and enhance skills of people to enable them to implement suggestions. By expanding the skills of workers to build their own tools, equipment, workstations, visual controls and mistake proofing devices and so forth we can reduce the bottleneck in implementing kaizen ideas caused by reliance on a limited number of skilled engineers, technicians or maintenance people.
“How do we reward and motivate people to give ideas?” This is perhaps the most complex topic and if you can handle this well then you can handle most other non-technical aspects of a lean transformation or of sustaining a continuous improvement program. First and the most important, management must create an environment where it is safe to give kaizen ideas.
Safety goes beyond simply making sure that none of the kaizen ideas themselves result in unsafe working conditions. The idea generation and review process itself must be safe. If the team-based dialog approach to the review of ideas is followed, your ideas should never be shot down with a “no”. Instead, it becomes an opportunity to understand the condition more thoroughly so that the problem can be defined properly and an effective countermeasure can be found.
Safety means your ideas do not get you fired. The “no layoff” commitment that any organization serious about building a lean culture needs to make. The traditional and strict definition of this is that no layoffs are ever done for any reason and that the employer takes social responsibility for keeping the jobs they create. However this is eroding almost everywhere it seems, and so the broader definition of “no layoffs” most often used states that jobs will not be lost as a consequence of efficiencies gained or improvements made to the process. We are all at the whim of the customer and the market to some degree and employers cannot guarantee jobs indefinitely, but they can be sensible and not cut the jobs of the very people who generated the improvement ideas. There is so much opportunity beyond labor cost savings in most organizations that this should never be an issue except for the most myopic of managers.
Financial reward is certainly plays small part in motivation. Many companies will choose to pay for kaizen ideas and if so every idea that is accepted should be paid an equal, token amount. This is often in the $5 range for companies in Japan, the United States or Western Europe. A secondary system is to reward these ideas by ranking them after they have been implemented and their impact has been verified, 1 to 3 months later. A simply ABC ranking method could be as follows:
C = Direct financial impact on target process difficult to measure
B = Direct financial impact on target process measured clearly
A = Measurable impact, can be widely deployed (yokoten)
Generally there is a cap in the reward amount for the A-grades regardless of the impact of the idea. There can also be special awards for annual and semi-annual tournaments. These events can motivate for the sense of fun and celebration for the entire organization, even when only a handful of people win prizes.
The primary motivator for kaizen idea generation should be the opportunity for individuals to learn and grow. For this reason many companies in will make the suggestion program a part of the human resource devleopment organization rather than operations or engineering. The aim is not to teach people technical skills but to teach people how to analyze processes, define value and waste and to solve problems. These are highly valuable, portable skills for a worker at any level in the organization. Beyond problem solving, learning through the kaizen idea generation process can involve improved writing skills, presentation skills, team leadership skills and many other fundamentals of management.

7 Comments

  1. Mike Lombard

    March 5, 2008 - 9:08 am

    What a great post! I expect to get a bill from you anytime soon 🙂

  2. Anna

    March 5, 2008 - 6:26 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Miller.
    I am a one-man operation but if I had employees, initially, I would host a monthly ice cream cake meeting to motivate kaizen idea generation. Admission would be 1 or more well thought out kaizen ideas. Personally, when I feel forced to do something, I like it less. I also do not want my employees to feel afraid to take initiatives.
    I am all for combining fun and task execution. Many people do not want to do extra work if they are not compensated for it in some way.

  3. Jon Miller

    March 6, 2008 - 1:07 pm

    Mike,
    I’m glad you liked it. But be careful what you wish for!
    Anna,
    Sounds like a meeting worth attending. Kaizen is only extra work when we find ourselves in a position where we are forced to change faster than we like. So the key is to get the ice cream cake out and start doing kaizen before your customers or competitors force you to.

  4. Philip

    May 15, 2008 - 8:34 am

    I’m with Anna. My thought was to take everyone out to celebrate milestones accomplished through kaizen and more importantly the sustainability of it. I kinda got some wild eyes looking at me from my manager 🙁 I’m new to lean, but the more I read about it, the more I feel that somehow I was born with it.
    The hardest part to all of this is the buy in between the psychology of of the employees and the management side sticking to philosophies and not jumping ship.

  5. Jan

    August 11, 2008 - 11:32 am

    Hi,
    I really like this post. It is very valuable to me. But now I have more questions in my head 😉
    Can idea management systems survive and grow without any rewarding? Will proper recognition be good enough?
    What about a system where people collect points and they can exchange that points for some items from catalogue?

  6. Jon Miller

    August 11, 2008 - 4:53 pm

    Hi Jan,
    I have never seen a successful total involvement system for continuous improvement that did not have both extrinsic (cash, awards) and intrinsic (peer recognition, self-actualization) rewards.
    That’s not to say it can’t be done without rewards.
    As far as points and gifts from a catalog, how does this process add value? You are just creating a middle-man which adds cost. Why not simply award cash and let people decide how they need to use it?

  7. Craig Chamberlain

    October 5, 2009 - 11:05 pm

    Mike is right. What a great post. I am putting a board together and this information will be very helpful. Thanks,