IT'S not a joke, but to exaggerate that we need hundreds of thousands of employee ideas but not the one that makes us laugh, although it helps if only to break the ice of a monotonous discussion. The trouble is that it may be misinterpreted by some people like Jeff (not his real name).

Jeff branded my article "Why Low-Cost Solutions to Problems Are Much Better" as promoting a "level of dishonesty." He said in an email: Your examples are "dishonest and inconsequential at best." He was against the low-cost solutions that were created by people who learned from my Kaizen and Lean workshops:

Case No. 1: A rural restaurant with smelly men's toilets due to low supply of water made worse by users who carelessly spill their urine on the floor. The employee's common-sense idea was the restaurant-made ice accentuated with food coloring that somehow psyche their customer-users to get closer to the urinal and avoid spill back.

Cost Savings? $100 a month.

Jeff commented there's a cost in making the ice. I told him there was none as they're using groundwater and they're maximizing the space in its chest freezer. Even if the ice melts quickly, it doesn't matter as long as it serves the purpose of draining the urine. He rejected the idea and instead recommended commercial sanitizing tablets which are not available in that area.

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The logic behind this is simply common-sense: Why spend money for something that can be solved using available resources?

Case No. 2: A small, traditional company that refuses to go paperless. It's another employee idea that is saving that company little money as they're using the letter size bond paper (215.9 X 279.4 mm) instead of the universal A4 Size (210 X 297 mm) that's a little expensive.

Cost savings? $20 a month.

Jeff was not impressed: "What about [the] compatibility with other paper sizes and the majority of the planet that uses A4?" The truth of the matter — they don't have any foreign clients. Even if they did, there's no need for A4 as email is a better solution. Also, this small company has a limited number of local customers that don't care about the paper size they're using.

Marginal gains

Jeff was not alone. I've encountered his kind almost every day since decades back. They're the same breed who profess to claim knowledge about Kaizen and Lean Thinking without realizing they know only a small fraction of what Toyota and other dynamic Japanese organizations are doing.

Jeff's tribe is composed of people who ignore the potency of employees' trivial ideas.

That's why I keep on promoting the value of 1-percent improvement, every day, everywhere and by everyone. Any 1 percent idea is better than zero. Even crazy ideas would serve the purpose. Imagine if you have 500 or 5,000 workers with each one giving you trivial ideas that could make sense in the long term.

It's called the "doctrine of marginal gains" that was attributed to Sir David Brailsford (b. 1964), former British Cycling performance director who believes that if we concentrate on creating one percent improvement, "cumulative benefits would be extraordinary."

After all, many crazy ideas before have become the seed to many inventions that we've enjoying today.

We must welcome even crazy ideas and learn from the lessons of the past. Clinton Nguyen of Tech Insider (2016) says "many successful inventions endured plenty of public ridicule before becoming wildly popular." If you don't believe it, do a simple Google search and you'll find hundreds of crazy ideas that were refined several times to make it functional today.


To make sense of all this, we must understand that whatever name you would like to call it — whether kaizen, lean, continuous improvement or marginal gains, the enormous advantage to any organization can only happen if we follow a certain framework that should guide every dictatorial or democratic manager. Take the following basic framework and reflect on them:

One, it must be based on industrial democracy. Management should create a work environment where employee ideas are systematically sourced, evaluated, refined and finalized. The more ideas, the better for the organization. It can be in the form of a quality circle, employee suggestion scheme, labor-management cooperation or whatever.

Two, belief in proactive problem-solving. Toyota management icon Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990) was right when he said: "The biggest problems in the world are the problems that we don't recognize." It's one of the reasons why we should involve all employees to help in identifying and solving problems, never mind if they come up with crazy ones.

Three, respect and trust for people. Management must be slow in rejecting employee ideas. To make this happen, a screening committee must be established to process all ideas using an objective evaluation process that starts with the active participation of the line leader, team supervisor, manager or department head, if necessary.

Last, low-cost, common-sense solutions must prevail. It's often called creativity over capital. Ohno said it best when he castigated his junior engineers to solve problems using their "brain" and not the company's money. This can be done by maximizing the use of excess tools, equipment or raw materials that are lying around unused inside the office and factory.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant on human resources and total quality management. Chat with him via Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter or send email to [email protected] or via