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What’s in your suggestion box? Many Kaizens you hope!

Read Time: 7 Minutes


Table Of Contents

    It’s the end of the quarter and Samuel, who is the HR Manager at ACME, is busy collecting data to turn into finance for their quarterly reports. One of his tasks is to routinely check for new ideas in the employee suggestion box. Sam usually stops on his way to or from lunch, since it's located on the wall near the lunchroom. He takes out his key and opens the box, expecting to not find any, which is what has happened every single time in the past. As the smell of old dust pops into the air, Sam looks into the dark box and sees that there are actually two suggestions in the bottom of the box, along with a gum wrapper and a receipt for the purchase of a twelve pack of Hamm’s beer from the convenience store across the street from the plant.

    As Sam opens the first suggestion, he reads, “We need better vending machines, ones that don’t steal my money!” The second suggestion reads, “ We need a raise!” Hmmm. Sam wonders if the person who put in the second suggestion was the same person who also put the receipt for the beer through the small opening at the top of the wooden box.

    With the 32% turnover rate at the plant, Sam thought that there would be plenty of fresh eyes to see opportunities for improvement on the production floor. Sadly, that didn’t seem to be the case.

    The Problem

    During the plant staff's online Quarterly review with corporate, Sam was seeing trends of not hitting the production orders on time, expedited shipping costs, some lame excuses, and a lot of finger-pointing between the departments. The non-operations managers blamed equipment downtime and the attrition rate of production associates for not meeting their numbers. Production managers blamed the great new process for the increased scrap. The process that was apparently dreamed up in someone's office, where things always work out exactly as they're supposed to, on paper at least. ACME was headed for trouble.

    Corporate asks the same questions: what is the recovery plan to get back on track for next quarter; and when can they expect to get out of the red – yada yada yada. 

    Bill, the plant manager, assured Corporate that they had the “A”-Team ready to attack the problems and that they should be back in black in a short time. They had data from the machines that will tell them where to go fix the issues. They had spent a lot of money to get an AI system running in their plant so the A-team could review this data and everything would get back on track for the 4th quarter.

    Sam was running through these statements in his head. It seemed the A-Team had already attacked the same problems last year. And for a short time, things did improve. But many of the new ideas they had implemented had somehow fallen back to the same old ways.

    Sam thought back to a Lean manufacturing class he took at the local community college a few years ago. What he remembered learning was that by building a Kaizen culture in your plant, job satisfaction will be increased and efficiency throughout the processes will be improved. He read stories of other lean companies becoming successful by building a continuous improvement learning culture at all levels of the company.

    What keeps you up at Night?

    What’s the matter, Sammy? It's 3 am and you're still awake! Sam’s wife was concerned for him as he has been tossing and turning the past few nights, which has also caused her to not sleep very well.

    Sam told Millie he was thinking about the meeting with corporate: the slim chance they had to recover, and how he felt they needed to create a learning culture at work, and he asked for her opinion. Millie replied, "Well, have you asked the people on the floor what they feel are the issues?" 

    The next day Sam went out to the line to talk with Angie who has been a line lead for many years at the plant. He started by asking how things were going, but then he asked her if she ever had any ideas that would help her line operate better. "Why you asking me?" she said. "Isn’t that why you brought Superman and his merry team was to come in and save the day? I heard my manager tell them that they don’t want us operators doing anything but feed material and push buttons on the line!"

    "I did have an idea," Angie said, "to add a shelf in our lockers so we can safely store our brains before going out to the floor. But I’m guessing that would be turned down since it would not net the ROI needed to justify the cost of time and material."

    After a small chuckle Sam asked, "Angie, really, what ideas do you have?" Angie replied by saying, “Our team works this line every day and nobody has ever asked for our opinion. We want to share them, but we don't feel like anything will come of it.  We're not sure our ideas are valued or any action will be taken from sharing them."

    Creating the Learning Culture with Kaizen

    Maybe this story sounds similar to what you're seeing at your plant or even some parts of it. To succeed today, you have to create the learning culture through continuous improvement projects from every level of the organization. Invest in the human capital and give them the tools they need so they can see the issues, decide what actions to take, and then let them test out their ideas.

    At Toyota, where I was introduced to the principles of lean manufacturing while working for an automotive supplier, they taught us that Kaizen means continuous improvement. It’s the continuous pursuit to close the gap between the current condition and where you want to be. Many people call this 'True North'. Problem-solving was taught at every level of the organization so that everyone can get involved. They were taught to identify issues that they can solve themselves to bridge that gap faster.

    In reality, there are times when bigger projects are required, and using a cross-functional team is the right approach to help solve the issue. But you can also continue to encourage your teams to focus on what they can do in their own work areas. Those small wins are what will help gain the buy-in from the organization and close the gap on your journey to True North. 

    Using a good Lean Execution System (LES) that can help capture the data and drive improvements is crucial  to supporting the team's efforts.

    A system that supports the continuous improvement cycle using Kaizen as the starting point, Problem-solving to address the issues, and then Yokoten (Share Improvements) with the rest of the plant and onto other facilities.


    Leading2lean's LES makes inputting ideas a click away, brings visibility to the ideas, and manages the actions being taken to solve problems or capture opportunities for improvement. This momentum of ideas followed through to improvement will naturally create your learning and improvement culture.  It starts with investing in your people.

    Time for Action

    The story continues with Sam knowing that they needed to do something different in order to have a chance of getting back on track and getting out of the red. They needed to involve everyone at the plant and they needed to start by teaching root cause analysis to everyone. He hoped that by getting everyone involved and then challenging them to come up with ideas to improve, the plant would get into a better state. But more importantly, he hoped that the plant would come alive again with passion and build the culture that would sustain their metrics.

    Kaizen Success

    For Acme, they focused on the people and drew on those ideas in order to reach their targets. Sam was very proud of the turnaround they did and saw how people really did want to feel like they were accomplishing something great by being a contributor to the plant's bottom line.  As soon as people felt like their ideas were valued, and at least some of them were acted on, the ideas continued to flow.

    Sam’s biggest issue now is having the resources to tackle those ideas and to find an electronic LES (Lean execution system) so they can manage all the new ideas they were getting. That too was an idea suggested since the suggestions box upfront was stuffed each month.

    With their efficiency improvements coming at a rapid rate, they were able to use some of the people in the plant to help with the Kaizen ideas. This also provided a stepping stone to maintenance and engineering for those wanting to change their career path.

    Sam was also immensely proud of the direction they were moving and the culture they were starting to build. These changes were a big factor in bringing their attrition rate below 15%. People wanted to work for ACME as they were known in the community as a great place to learn and work. Many of the employees thanked Sam for his efforts in helping create a learning culture, including Bill, the plant manager who was especially grateful for the new culture change. 

    Bill rewarded Sam with the LES system they needed to manage the abnormalities on the floor and the employee suggestions ideas for improvement. All the small kaizens added up to save the company significant money and to improve the production efficiencies.  In turn, the plant was hitting its forecasted targets each quarter.

    Bill also learned a valuable lesson: If you focus on your people and put the team first, your issues on the floor will work themselves out for the better. They know the solutions to many of the problems on the floor.

    So as the famous saying goes, what's in your suggestion box?  (Or your LES :-)