Yuzo  Yasuda's  book  featuring  Toyota's  idea  system,  40 Years, 20 Million Ideas: The Toyota Suggestion System, describes how Toyota had received one million ideas per year from its employees and had been doing so for more than a decade. More recently, Toyota received more than three million ideas from employees in one year. 

Several other companies have also excelled at harnessing employee ideas and implementing them as a competitive advantage. Companies like Dana Corporation, Milliken & Company, Yamaha, Toshiba, Technicolor USA, Inc., and Boardroom, Inc. have each generated tens of thousands of ideas per year.

Your first reaction to these staggering numbers of suggestions might be disbelief. This level of involvement is not achieved by using a suggestion box. It is achieved by engaging the minds of employees and tapping into their unlimited pool of ideas and creativity. Letting this resource go untapped is like sitting on top of a gold mine and feeling poor. So, how do these companies do it?

Before we answer that question, let's address why we should even focus on getting ideas when we are coaching. This coaching habit of involving your team is not about generating ideas for ideas' sake. It is about soliciting ideas to improve employee productivity, reduce costs, increase speed, and eliminate waste. The primary objective is to improve individual and team performance. If done with a positive mindset and habits, we will also enhance relationships along the way.

The by-product of this coaching habit is a strong and rapid increase in the employees' sense of ownership. These under-the-hood ideas will ultimately make their work more interesting and efficient. Your team will realize cost savings, quality improvements, and service improvements that form an irreplaceable competitive advantage.

Okay, back to the question: How do they do it? The name of the game is to think small. Small ideas are actually better than big ideas because:

  • Small ideas are much more likely to stay proprietary and create sustainable competitive advantage, since they are under-the-hood and situation-specific. Besides, your competitors are most likely looking for the next big idea. Let them wait for their grand slam while you hit a thousand singles.
  • Small ideas enable you to focus on the details of your business. Excellence is the result of getting the details right. In many cases, it is literally impossible to improve performance (speed, service, quality, costs) beyond a certain level without small ideas.
  • Small ideas help create a culture that values ideas (every idea is a good idea) and the people they come from, resulting in a boost in ownership at the grass- roots level of your organization.
  • Small ideas facilitate rapid and continuous organizational learning and performance improvements based on that learning.
  • Small ideas are the best sources of big ideas. (The Post-it note came from a small idea to find a better glue.)

Small ideas might include:

  •  "If we print our weekly status reports double-sided, we could save three reams of paper per month."
  • "While I'm waiting for our driver to check in his shipment at our store's receiving dock, I sweep out the inside of his truck so he can make a quicker turn- around at our distribution center."
  • "If I highlight off-plan line items on my report, the executive committee can more quickly and efficiently focus on those areas of concern."

Inspiring coaches go for quantity, not quality, of ideas to build a culture of innovation and ownership. They make ideas, lots of them, part of everyone's job. They use clarifying questions to determine if and how to best implement the ideas. Ask your team for the kinds of ideas you need. You may have a focus area for that week, month, or quarter.