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Practical Tips for Re-Engaging People with a Suggestion System

by Steve Ansuini
June 7, 2018

Practical Tips for Re-Engaging People with a Suggestion System

by Steve Ansuini
June 7, 2018 | Comments (4)

Two recent surveys highlighted just how disengaged people are at work. According to Gallup’s “2018 Global Great Jobs Briefing,” only 13% of American full-time workers said they had “great jobs,” defined as good jobs where they also felt engaged. And a survey by Accountemps found that workers were disengaged 26% of the time.

For some employees, more company perks or less red tape would make them feel engaged. No one can argue with those understandable wishes, but companies would be smart to consider suggestion systems. The surveys reminded us of a recent conversation we had with Steve Ansuini, who established the suggestion system at Toyota’s Georgetown plant. He said the paramount purpose of the system was engagement. So, we asked him to explain how to start and grow a suggestion system that fosters engagement. -Chet Marchwinski, LEI

The initial suggestion system Toyota set up in Georgetown had one goal – to get team members engaged by empowering them to make improvements to their work. It was an expression of the company's commitment to placing the customer first – internal as well as external customers – and giving creativity the respect it deserves. 

To start and grow engagement in a suggestion system at your company, plan on managing it through three phases with distinct activities: introduction, 1-to-2 or 3 years; transition, 2-to-3 or 5 years; and maturation.

1. Introduction

Any improvement, no matter how small, is beneficial because collectively they outperform the occasional "home-run" idea. But to create the work atmosphere that generates a constant stream of ideas, management must visibly support the system as a way of doing business, not as another program to administer.

So, to announce the Toyota suggestion system, we mailed a letter from the company president home to every hourly employee. This gave spouses and kids a chance to see the announcement too. In the letter, we included merchandise certificates worth $25 for people with the company longer than six months, and $15 for less than that.

Before launching the system, leadership developed and published guidelines for key procedures such as how suggestions would be submitted, reviewed, and rewarded. It also developed the system’s focus. We decided to focus on the participation rate rather than dollar savings for the company. This was a critical decision. I believe that over time, the former strategy grows the system and savings follow. The latter approach won’t sustain a viable suggestion system.

Initially, only hourly team members were eligible to submit suggestions for their areas of responsibility. First-level salaried staff, such as floor supervisors (group leaders) and specialists, could submit improvements ideas outside their areas but not inside, where they were to concentrate on supporting their team members.

All team members received a one-hour overview of system guidelines and procedures when we launched it. Supervisors and group leads got four hours training to start and point-of-need training afterward when they had questions.

We told supervisory staff not to give their ideas to team members for submission. They were trained to coach team members by asking questions about problems and potential solutions so associates discovered solutions on their own.

To quickly build participation, the system emphasized quantity of improvements over quality in the beginning. Of course, there must be criteria for eligible improvement activities, but to start we were more accepting of ideas and a little less strict on countermeasures.

An advisory committee made up mostly of hourly workers from many levels and many areas gave us feedback on what rewards team members preferred. The committee met quarterly, usually at lunch with boxed meals provided by the company.

We were careful to avoid having competing recognition programs. For example, at Georgetown, the quality circles unit had a recognition program with an annual banquet and regularly scheduled drawings for merchandise. But their awards for improvement ideas were processed through the suggestion system. For instance, a quality circle would write up an improvement idea as a team suggestion and submit it to the suggestion system process.

We tried to follow the lean management principle of flow. When team members submitted suggestions, supervisors had five working days to say yeah or nay. Members submitted suggestions on an easy-to-use, three-part form with lots of white space. If the suggestion affected work outside that supervisor’s area, copies went to the other shift or area for review by team leaders and members there within 10 days.

When an idea was approved, the form’s third page, signed by the supervisor, was returned to the member to keep. A suggestion is a legal contract, so it’s important they get a copy.

Implementing the vast majority of suggestions went quickly because most were simple improvements to the work. Supervisors could approve buying up to $200 dollars of materials for implementation without getting approval from the area assistant manager or manager.

For every approved suggestion, supervisors awarded points. The smallest award total was 10. The maximum was 10,000. A table listed how many points to assign for intangible as well as tangible benefits. Here are some examples:

Intangible Benefits (10-point award)

  • Increased employee involvement, satisfaction, or morale
  • Increased level of responsibility
  • Encouraged or clarified accountability
  • Improved communications
  • Improved the "quality of work life" by making the workplace safer, operations easier, workloads more level, etc.

Tangible Benefits (Minimum 3-point award)

  • Reduced material, supplies, operations, or maintenance costs
  • Increased internal customer satisfaction
  • Reduced or eliminated paperwork
  • Reduced the number of operations
  • Reduced cycle time
  • Improved delivered quality

Note: A tangible total of six points was possible with three points for minimum labor savings and three points for minimum material savings.

Suggestions awarded less than 500 points received non-cash awards as redeemable certificates. Ideas awarded more than 500 points or team members who accumulated that or more could take cash awards.

We always cut the cash award checks between pay weeks to make the benefit of submitting ideas standout from regular pay. Toyota paid taxes on the rewards. If a team member’s suggestion got 500 points, he or she got a check for $500. Supervisors presented checks, without announcing amounts, during shop-floor huddle meetings.

Area general managers recommended implemented ideas for extra recognition to the system’s administration office. Once a quarter, I met personally with the company president for a couple hours to review the paperwork for these recommended awards. Then, we’d head to the shop floor to see the suggestions in action and meet the team members who proposed them.

The president asked team members why they made the suggestions, how they implemented them, and what they learned. He would typically pick two or three ideas that showed special creativity or initiative, such as researching an idea with engineers.

(Next, Steve details the next two steps, Transition and Maturation, in Part 2.)

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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4 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban June 07, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this comment

This is great.

Sadly, "suggestion system" usually connotes the "suggestion box system," which is almost always a failure.

But, Toyota-style kaizen is so much more effective, of course, so I was happy to read about that here.

Reply »

Kyle Kumpf June 15, 2018

This article is amazing. It is very timely in that I'm working on expanding a suggestion system right now.

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Tom Gormley July 30, 2018

A few aspects of this approach surprised me. As Mark commented, the word suggestion connotes the old suggestion box approach, and by "suggesting" it implies (to me anyway) that the suggestor isn't signing up to implement their idea, because it's just a suggestion. It also feels top down to me, defined and managed by supervisors who have to approve each idea, which adds waste (waiting) and seems to say we don't trust staff to have good ideas. And the monetary award, to me it detracts from the concept that improving the process is part of my job vs. something that deserves a special reward. In our hospital, managers are encouraging staff to bring and implement ideas as part of their professional development and it will be part of their regular performance reviews. I believe our approach using idea boards and huddles, patterned after many before us in healthcare, has improved engagement and culture. 

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Steve Ansuini August 01, 2018

I appreciate the comments and agree that the Toyota system was not the proverbial "suggestion box on the wall" system.  Another interesting differentiation of the system is that we had 1.5 fulltime support staff and processed as many as 17,000 suggestions in one month.  The design flow of the system was such that we made a commitment of 45 days on average to get the award to the team members submitting implemented and approved suggestions.

So flow was an important part of the process...just like product flow through manufacturing.  Fancy that!

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