I will admit to being sometimes confused, as I am now...

My recollection is that one of Japan's contributions to the world was Kaizen and its focus on continuous improvement of quality / production through the generation of lots of ideas from employees. One stat from files was that a manufacturer in 1986 got 6 million ideas from the employees (one individual contributed 15,681!). One would logically think that kaizen and engagement would be pretty tied together.

Then I look to confirm these same ideas in the TowersPerrin (2008) report on engagement that only 3% of Japanese employees are engaged and 25% enrolled -- that 16% are disengaged. The numbers for the US are 14%, 42% and 11% and South Korea is 8%, 45% and 7% respectively for these same categories. Granted these are different cultures, to be sure.

So, I am confused. Anyone have thoughts or insights into these numbers and this situation?

Tags: Japan, Korea, South, employee, engagement, statistics

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Pardon my ignorance, Scott, but please explain what "enrolled" means.

Best regards, Ben
Different cultures probably contributing? Possibly the Japanese perspective of work regarding duty / obligation / loyalty to the employer vs the western "what's in it for me?" But I think that is shifting in the Japanese workplace (?)

At present though, it seems the Japanese worker is heavily skewed toward maximum contribution regardless of their satisfaction level.

Hopefully we will hear from some of our peers who have firsthand knowledge!

What kills me about what you've noted Scott--six million ideas, with one worker single-mindedly dumping over 15k into the system. Totally unmanageable. Kaizen, idea contributions, involvement, and engagement all are pretty much pointless without a little focus and purpose.

(my opinion only, not necessarily those of the station)
Hi Scott - I have little reason not to believe that the individual who contributed 15,681 ideas in 1986 was very engaged but in today's context, I am not certain if I will infer engaged workers from the number of suggestions they contributed in their organization (I am not ruling out exceptional cases though, like Cornell, 3M). Contextually, that report was measuring the engagement level in 2008 and not 1986 so I am guessing that the drivers of engagement could be very different between then and now.

Engagement and the act of submitting suggestions could be further delinked today especially if it is part of their individual/team performance indicators (and correspondingly, bonus) to submit X number of ideas per year, or if it is a company's mandate to have at least X number of ideas from each employee.

Perhaps, I have a bias view about this due to the happenings with the Staff Suggestion Scheme (SSS) in my country. It started on the right footing with passionate employees submitting ideas to better the organization until it was made mandatory for every one to submit X number of ideas.

Ben -

Good question and apologies for my shorthand...

The general way that the survey companies are looking at employee involvement levels of all people is a 4-point scale ranking engaged, enrolled, disenchanged and disengaged, from high to low (TowersPerrin).

BlessingWhite referred to them on a 5-point scale as engaged, almost engaged, "Honeymooners & Hampsters" (really - see pg 20 of their Asia-Pacific overview), "Crash & Burners" and disengaged. I think the former is a bit easier on the eyes, ears and brains, although I imagine that using the latter, especially the Hampsters, might be a bit more fun...

Lots of global shifting around going on also, Craig.

Carlos Ghosn goes from Greenville's Michelin presidency to the presidency of Nissan and immediately becomes the highest paid CEO in the country - getting a pittance by American Standards ($10 million) but an awful lot more than the norm.

Look at the salaries offered Tony the Pony at BP after that horrendous leadership he showed, so you can see that things are changing as executives get more and more (think Wall Street and its billions in bonuses last year) versus the average guy in the workplace getting just above minimum wage (and all the yelling and screaming about companies HAVING to offer medical coverage). I think the US Senators get $195,000 and John (of Orange) Boehner playing golf 119 times last year as representative of the people.

The US CEOs are getting about 300 times the compensation of the front-line workers.

So, if a company CAN generate ideas, they do have fodder for improvement. Milliken (Baldrige Award Winner back in 1989 and just up the road) required every employee to generate ideas for improvement. Some were as simple as re-using large envelopes for internal mail and some were multii-million dollar ideas for new products. I had the chance to sit in on a couple of those sharing meetings. People WERE engaged; ideas were listened to. Some were implemented.

So, lots of data from lots of places on lots of thingies. I would suggest that "employee suggestion systems" are not BIG in the scheme of things these days. But I also see real engagement being low and stats showing that most people do not feel that managements listen to their ideas.

So, where do we find the balance and what is the tipping point for ideation and engagement to become a positive thing in the workplace?

What are your personal experiences with your ideas and the reaction of your manager to those thoughts?

Me, I had a boss (Ed) who I would see once a month, maybe (I was on the road as a performance management consultant and process improvement guy) and he would always begin our conversations with, "Hi Scott. What's on your mind? I only have a minute." (Really - he did that with everyone) So, I learned not to bother after a couple of such conversations -- after two years, I was also the second-most experienced guy on the staff and Ed put maybe 20 or 25 people out in competition with himself instead of retaining them as valued people.

I actually worked with two of the guys who left after I left!! (And formed my own business a few years later, doing the same thing and using the same kinds of OD tools...)


Thanks for explaining.

Best regards, Ben
It's been Toyota, not Japan, that has taught the world that respect for people results in engagement, and the ideas that build its continuous improvement culture. Most Japanese companies do not use the Toyota philosophy at all. It takes years to study how Toyota manages change within structure, and even its false steps are instructive. While the 15,000 ideas story may be exaggerated, "Ideas" in may be tiny improvements that shave seconds from a process or pennies on materials and there was a legendary employee who sat at his kitchen table every night writing up all the little things he'd thought of during the day. When employees' ideas are implemented, when they are actively helped to understand what they are working on, when their expertise is added to that management understanding, and they are trusted, their level of engagement develops over years. There are estimates that only 2-5% of companies have gotten anywhere with their implementation of Toyota-style continuous improvement (often under it's unfortunate label of "lean"), so the dismal estimates of overall employee engagement are probably accurate.
I think that you are spot on, Karen. I have no direct knowledge of Japanese management of companies, but besides time on helping execs and managers manage better, I do spend a lot of time on companies from an investment standpoint.

From my own experience in turning around organizations, I learned that achieving a high level of engagement and the benefits of those thousands of employee-initiated improvements generated from their high level of commitment to their work, any company will be able to literally blow away their competition. Since that has not been the case for the vast majority of Japanese companies, Toyota being an exception, I can only conclude that your observation is quite correct.

Best regards, Ben
Interesting on Japan and Toyota. Not my impression, stemming from the days of Deming and quality and all that. And I never had a hard link between Kaizen and Lean, either. It is true that there are a lot of cultural things going on there these days, different from those in the US and Western Europe, for sure.

Any other reader thoughts on this?

There appears to be an assumption that the collection of ideas creates engagement.
What creates the environment that allows enagagement to occur is not the collection of ideas but the feedback that management gives the originators of the ideas.

Having worked for a Canadian consultancy, whose product of choice was the continuous improvement process, they made it their business to sell to clients the benefits that could be made by collecting ideas from the workforce.

They measured the success of an implementation by counting the number of ideas that were collected by their consutants. The words "Empowerment, Ownership and Engagement" were a complete mystery to them.

It was clear that the strategy of taking without giving anything in return was not working, something had to change in order to change the way the the workforce felt about what they did, to create the conditions that would allow them to engage.

What changed the way that the workforce felt was the way that management dealt with their ideas.

By making sure that every idea collected received feedback from management the originators started to feel differently about what they were doing.
Management had to respond to every idea and that response could only be one of two things.
Yes, good idea we are going to do that,Or, No, we are not going to do that, and here is the reason why not.
Both of these responses show the originator of the idea that someone is listening to them, someone has heard their idea and values them enough to make a response.

It is the knowledge that they are being valued by management that allows the workforce to become engaged and it is being ignored by management that prevents them from engaging.

Peter A Hunter
Engagement and Ideas -

Peter - I am not assuming that the collection of ideas equals engagement, but suggesting that there is probably a good correlation between the numbers and quality of ideas as it relates to the level of engagement. Of course, an "engagement system" that focused on collecting ideas and then did nothing following that collection would not work very long or very well. We see that same thing when it relates to surveys that generate no change and maybe a leader comment or two many months after completion -- those do not get much quality when done again...

When we see stats like:

"The 2009 Employment Dynamics and Growth Expectations Report said 55 percent of employees plan to change jobs, careers or industries 'when the economy recovers.'”

we can assume that there are some issues with people being engaged as well as how much they are currently contributing to performance and productivity and quality and the like.

So, how can these parallel issues of employee suggestions and the theme or engagement get tied together? How can we put a train on those two separate rails? The idea of closing the feedback loop is solid so that employees feel that people are listening and valuing their ideas -- so that "idiotic contribution" becomes a positive, not a description of how most managers view most employees!

(Hey, is "idiotic contribution" a pun, redundant, an oxymoron or what?)

The suggestions are the seed corn, of minimal value on their own.
What turns those ideas into engagement, or not, is the way that management treat them.

Peter A Hunter
Do ideas generate engagement or does engagement generate ideas? As has been said many times before, management creates the climate that generates both. If you're interested in an example of how NOT to run an ideas program, here's an example: http://leanreflect.blogspot.com/2006/05/ideas-are-free-but-easily-p...


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