Some time ago, 3M was in the news about the way they used “social networking” internally to generate new ideas. This electronic suggestion box generated an “impressive” 700 suggestions in only 2 weeks, according to news site cio.com. And of course, every suggestion is welcome, but I’d like to put the 3M efforts in a somewhat larger perspective. Then 700 ideas in 2 weeks means about 18,200 ideas per year. Now 3M has some 75,000 employees, so this implies 0.24 ideas per employee per year. So do we still think this is impressive? Furthermore, cio.com mentioned that the ideas were submitted by some 1,200 employees, so by 1.6% of all employees. Cio.com published the article to illustrate a “best practice” in employee involvement. Honestly, I’m not very impressed. Are you?
Let’s have a look at Toyota. Now, of course, you can think of Toyota what you want currently, personally the Toyota Way continues to inspire me. Let’s contrast 3M’s electronic suggestion box with the way Toyota enables associates to put forward and implement improvement ideas. The Toyota way does not lead to 0.24 suggestions per employee per annum, but to an amazing 40. And not only this, the participation level is at 96% whereby 95% of all suggestions is also actually implemented. That is 166 times more productive than the social networking initiative at 3M. At one of my former employers, Valeo, the counter at the time was at 11 implemented suggestions per employee per annum. That still is 46 times more productive than 3M.
Now what is the essence of these successful suggestion schemes? First, it is important to note that in successful suggestion schemes, the ideas are not just “ideas”. No, they are counter measures, suggested by employees and teams, to eliminate an identified problem in their work. To achieve this, associates need to be involved in their work, understand its purpose, be able to detect problems, and to be allowed and helped to share, discuss and actually solve their problems at a daily, shift or even hourly basis.
Second, successful suggestion schemes focus on keeping detection, problem-solving and implementation together at the lowest possible organizational level. They are not based upon a central suggestion box or special committees that need to evaluate all suggestions. Such systems lead to slow decision-making and long lead times, communication problems, suggestions that are not aligned with the purpose of the work and a lack of cohesion in the team. In successful schemes, however, teams themselves identify problems — by continuously overseeing standards and by a highly frequent evaluation of their work — analyze these problems, and subsequently suggest and implement relevant counter measures.
To achieve the results expected from a truly Lean organization, it is not enough to just start a suggestion system. And definitely not one in which a suggestion box and a committee is part of the concept. It requires a turnaround in the way managers, supervisors, team leaders and their teams work together, centered around the real work and focused on developing people.
In order to be able to analyze the problems and develop and implement effective counter measures, teams require the right competencies and skills. You can develop this through proper (on-job) training and coaching. But also think about integrating support functions like quality, maintenance, and production control as low as possible into the operational team, typically at department or even supervisor level with functional correspondents in the actual teams.
Focus on the actual work and its purpose, detection of problems within the team, highly frequent opportunities for teams to evaluate their work, autonomy in analyzing problems and suggesting and implementing counter measures and leaders that develop their people. These are some of the ingredients of a successful suggestion scheme. And that is a lot more than installing a suggestion box with some empty forms tomorrow. You’re not off the hook that easy!