Sunday, December 29, 2013

An Index Card: The Gateway to a Lean Culture

One of the most important things I learned in the early days of my lean "journey" is HOW Toyota measures "morale". Simply, morale is measured by the number of employee suggestions. This one thought completely changed my approach to lean. You see, great team morale is directly proportional to the team's sense of ownership. Poor morale is full of "I just work here". Great morale is a population of people who behave like they OWN the business. It is nearly impossible to enjoy the great results of lean without this sense of ownership.

It was depressing to think that employees at Toyota would come up with hundreds of suggestions to improve their work.....every day. Contrast this to my own situation years ago, where the red suggestion box on the wall would remain empty day after day, week after week, month after month. What is the state of YOUR employee suggestion "program"?

People love to talk about a lean culture or a culture of continuous improvement, where people are constantly working to make the work better, everywhere in the business, for the benefit of the customer (whomever gets my work next). From the floor to the management team, from sales to engineering to accounting. 

This type of culture is not built overnight, and cannot be mandated. It will not happen with extensive training, or by certifying black belts. Like all things lean, it is "learn by doing". So how do we start?

Pull everyone together. Give everyone one week notice, and ask everyone to bring 2 index cards (go hand these out personally) with 2 suggestions and their name written on them. Even if it takes you all day, hand them out yourself, and spend a few minutes with everyone. Acknowledge that the best improvements will always come from the experts who actually DO the work every day, for years, sometimes decades.

When everyone comes to the meeting with their cards, collect them, and explain that 6-12 will be used to start, and the others will be next. Choose, small, simple, achievable ones. Put the suggestion on a visible white board, along with the name of the person who suggested it, as well as the date it was written on the board.

Your job now is to help each A3 leader (suggester) select a 3-5 person team and organize a 15-20 minute meeting of this team. The purpose is for that leader to explain what their idea is all about, and the cost of not fixing the problem. This is called defining the current condition in A3. Subsequent meetings (a day or two later, also 15-20 minutes long) will be to further define the current condition, do root cause (5 why), agree to a target condition and how to implement it. When the target condition has been implemented, call everyone together again so the leader (the person with the idea) can explain to everyone what they did.

In 2018, the 5 companies I work for did this 1094 times. Worst case, you have a world class suggestion system. Best case, the same vehicle doubles as a way to teach lean (by using some of the tools to identify and solve problems) as well as the DMAIC. Start with easy problems (the index cards), and watch these self directed work teams develop to the point where they can go after any visible problem!

The point is, people who are not willing, able and empowered to implement small changes will never, ever be able to sustain a culture of ownership required to do lean to the point where you are approach true excellence. People KNOW what the problems are.....will you listen?

It all starts with a few index cards.


  1. Bill - Really like this idea for getting employee suggestions from all associates. I'm going to try this since the program we have in place doesn't have a lot of activity the way I expected it to. I'll let you know how it works out.

  2. When you hand them the card, ask them to think about one change they would make right now if they owned the company. Good luck Wayne. I look forward to hearing from you.