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20 Million Ideas to Greatness

by Langdon on November 20, 2015

Sooner or later it occurs to the leaders of nearly every organization that their own employees should be a source of ideas that can improve their businesses. They then set about to tap into this valuable source of knowledge.

Many of their efforts go astray, however, and result in idea systems that fail and are even counterproductive, in that they demotivate rather than motivate.

Why do they go wrong?

Often it’s because they misunderstand the psychology of ideas, creativity, and innovations, that is, they don’t understand the mindset of the thoughtful and creative people who will come up with these gems. Mistakes are made concerning metrics, rewards, approaches to idea evaluation, timing, the role of management, and the targets.

The world’s exemplar for idea systems is certainly Toyota, which, between 1951 and 1991, logged more than 20 million ideas. It is not a coincidence that the company is the world’s leading manufacturing firm, as Toyota’s idea system has been a major contributor to that success.

The story of that system is nicely documented in the book with this compelling title: 40 Years, 20 Million Ideas by Yuzo Yasuda. Although this is not a new book, it contains an astonishing number of valuable insights for those who are interested in this topic.

In this blog post we offer some excerpts from that book with a few comments added, which we hope you will find useful. (Please note that some of these excerpts have been edited and paraphrased for purposes of clarity, and all of the excerpts speak from the perspective of Toyota.)



To begin, why do we do this:

“The role of the Japanese suggestion system is not simply to produce efficiency. Its scope is much broader, and includes raising management planning participation consciousness through total employee participation, building thinking habits, developing creative idea capabilities, and implementing the value of work through the joy of creating.” (p. 74)

“From an employee’s perspective, the purpose of the Creative Idea Suggestion System is to make one’s job easier. From the company’s perspective, the purposes are to increase the skill of the employees who make suggestions by increasing their problem consciousness and implementing their suggestions, and to use suggestion activities to build a workplace environment where it is easy to work. A third purpose flows logically from them: to contribute to the expansion and structural improvement of the company.” (p. 12)

How fitting it is that the stated goal is to make work easy. Surely we all are interested in making our work easier, and thus the purpose of the system and the inherent motivation of the employees are in full alignment.

And how interesting is the phrase “problem consciousness.” Behind this choice of words is the clarity that whatever makes work harder, more difficult, must be a problem, and when we become aware of the problems, instead of just living with them, we make things better.

Yasuda also notes that, “It is important to create an environment in which problems are easily detected.” Indeed, if they’re not detected how can they be solved? “If people are on the alert to detect problem points, and if an environment is created that makes it easy to notice problems, the supply of creative idea ‘seeds’ will not run out.” (p. 13)



Who provides the leadership for idea systems?

“Those with the greatest responsibility for managing the Creative Idea Suggestion System must be people with considerable authority within the company so that they will have a solid grasp of the situation from the perspective of the whole company. They will help to orient these activities more effectively. That is why people in top management positions are made the chairman and vice-chairman of the Creative Idea Committee.” (p. 19)

Conversely, “If people at a lower level or responsibility are put in charge of suggestion activities, they will never be able to cope with suggestion activities on a company-wide basis. The people responsible for managing suggestion systems must be top management people with authority throughout the company; otherwise there will be no positive results no matter how much they listen to explanations and adopt these systems.” (p. 21)

So from the company’s perspectives, ideas must be evaluated from a holistic perspective to assure that suitable decisions are made consistently, decisions that reflect the overall value and benefit. Decisions about whether to adopt or not adopt particular ideas are not only local and specific to a given location or department, they are broad and comprehensive.

And of course if this approach is built into the idea system, then it means that the entire management team is being trained, on an ongoing basis, to understand and evaluate possible actions also from a holistic perspective, which surely strengthens the overall quality of the decisions being made not only with respect to specific ideas, but regarding all types of managerial leadership and decision making topics.



We have seen some ideas systems that operate on quarterly cycles of idea submission and review. Is this also how it works at Toyota? Not quite …

“Suggestions submitted by employees are screened on the same day by their immediate managers.” (p. 22)

It’s also important to note that there is a very interesting nuance related to the specific process for submitting an idea:

“Toyota’s supervisors and managers conduct actual on-site checks of suggestions before they are submitted. The ones judged feasible are then submitted and screened by the subcommittee. When employees submit suggestions to their managers for an actual on-site check, any effort to stimulate suggestion activities will be a complete waste of time if the employees are confronted with negative attitudes.” (p. 41)

There are two key insights here. First, ideas are not just submitted, they’re in effect pre-submitted for review. This assures that the ideas that are subsequently submitted are much more likely to be valuable, as the process of pre-submission is a form of discussion and feedback to assess value and merit. Through this dialog a vague idea can become clarified and improved, a bad one can be avoided, and a great one can be expanded and enriched.

There is also an important psychological dimension here, as employees avoid the embarrassment of having their ideas rejected because they know if they get past the pre-screen that they are overwhelmingly likely to be accepted. This is a clever strategy to make the employee and the company even more successful.

Further, to avoid creating negative experiences, Toyota has developed an official list of 20 phrases that managers should never use to assure that they do not discourage or alienate employees. The list includes these six:

We’ve never done that before. There’s no point in trying it.
This isn’t up to date enough.
Is this within the budget?
Let’s talk about this some other time.
I don’t think that’s technically feasible.
You don’t really understand the situation, do you?
(p. 42)

We once found a similar list that we once found on the internet, called “101 Idea Killers.” Yes, there are more than 101 ways to kill the creative spirit in a company, and where these killers are practiced whether intentionally or unintentionally they surely lead to undesired outcomes, such as the decline of participation, people only doing the minimum, and the emergence of a caste system consisting of “those who know,” (bosses, normally) and those who don’t (everyone else).

Along these lines, Kiichiro Toyoda, founder of Toyota, is said to have “never criticized anyone so that the creative zeal would not be crushed.” (p. 66)

Here, then, is the voice of the gifted leader whose deep insights into human behavior have led to the creation of a company that is a world leader.

The insight behind this practice is also reflected in this comment from a middle manager, who commented in regard to a very poor suggestion that was made by someone in his group. He noted, “For something like this the only thing possible is a sympathetic response of, ‘Well, let’s give you $5.’ [$5 is he the lowest award level.] We don’t give negative evaluations, only positive ones. We avoid being too harsh because there’s always the threat of nipping the suggestion activities in the bud.” (p. 121)

Another manager commented, “If you become a person who makes suggestions excellent enough to receive the gold prize, you still remain at the workplace doing your usual job. To cultivate leadership talent among your subordinates, you have to handle things in such a way that subordinates are allowed to get the prize instead of you. Even if the material is something that you yourself have researched, there are times when you must let the prize go to subordinates to encourage their development.” (p. 92)

A third added, “At a time when I didn’t know what to write on suggestion forms, or how I should write it, my foreman chided me that I wasn’t trying hard enough to write suggestions. So I began writing them, and that is how my suggestion writing career began. My foreman always praised the good points of my suggestions, but never point out the bad ones. It wasn’t until later that I noticed this.” (p. 93)

The progression in the number of ideas submitted, from 1951 through 1986:

1951 (the first year)
Suggestions: 789
Participation rate: 8%
Adoption rate: 23%

Suggestions: 88,607
Participation rate: 67%
Adoption rate: 74%

1986 (the year before this book was written)
Suggestions: 2,648,710
Participation rate: 95%
Adoption rate: 96%

Leaving nothing to chance, Toyota offers classes in how to write suggestions, and has produced a guidebook called The Creative Idea Guide: Aiming to Build a Better Workplace That Makes Your Life and Your Work Worthwhile.” (p. 94)



The cash awards that Toyota offers are very small, from a low of $5 to small multiples of that. In the most exceptional of cases the awards may be larger, but unlike the practices elsewhere, there is no attempt to make the award specifically proportional to the value of the idea. Instead, the award is a symbol of recognition, and in most cases the recipient spends the award on coworkers, by treating them to sweets or pooling award money for a night out.

“Advancement in the organization and small cash awards give people an incredible sense of satisfaction and abundance.” (p. 112)



And here is a final comment, which reflects the powerful thinking behind Toyota’s approach:

“Even in the case of excellent suggestions, when someone asks how much the company will benefit by paying a reward for such suggestions, the reward is often higher than the benefits received, and there has actually been a loss of money. However, there may be one excellent suggestion that will produce significant benefit. If all suggestions have been labeled worthless, suggestion activities will wither and excellent suggestions will not be made. Even if each suggestion does not produce a benefit above the cost of its award, it is important for Creative Idea suggestion activities to look at the overall picture and not just isolated incidents.” (p. 122)


…  Has your organization implemented an idea system? How did it work out? What makes it work well? What detracts from success? Please let us know.


Forty Years, Twenty Million Ideas. By Yuzo Yusuda. Productivity Press, 1991.
Sadly, it is out of print and the only copies available are rather expensive.  But if this topic is of interest for you, it’s a great resource.

Nov 2015 book cover


Moore’s Law, Kings, Paupers, Lilies, and Exponents

by Langdon on September 20, 2015

Sept 2015 V2 rice

In 1965, computer scientist and Intel co-founder Gordon Moore calculated the year to year progress that had been made during the brief history of computer chips, and he realized that as a result of scientific and technological innovation, the capacity of chips to perform computing functions was doubling roughly every year. This progress was instigated on the scientific side largely by academic and industry researchers, who had continually found new ways to put more switches onto a single chip, and on the commercial side as a result of the market environment in which the chip makers were competing, where they had strong incentive to improve their products to sustain or improve their market position.

As a result of his calculation and the article he published about it, this rate of improvement got a name, Moore’s Law, by which it is still known today.

The combination of scientific progress applied in a commercial context describes not only the history of computer chips, but it indeed illuminates much of the broader history of civilization. Not every breakthrough was motivated by commercial concerns, but a great many were. Gutenberg was a business man, and his printing press was built specifically to support a commercial venture; it went on to transform the religions of central Europe, and then the entire world of scholarship, and then the entire world. Watt and the steam engine transformed transportation, Whitney and his cotton gin the basic factory, Ford and the Model T further transformed transportation, and countless millions of other advances are central to our lives today.

Moore charted the progress of computer chips on a graph, and wondered how much longer the progress shown on the graph could be sustained. A long time, as it turned out, since its’ now 50 years later and the progress is still proceeding along the same line.Slide1This is one of the most important curves that describes the modern world, for the technological improvement it visualizes is the enabler and provocateur of so many other changes that have occurred during the last five decades.

The sustained rate of progress that Moore’s Law describes is also historically unprecedented, as computer chips have been made progressively smaller, progressively more powerful, and progressively less expensive for all these decades. Throughout the entirety of the history of human industry going back hundreds of thousands of years, no other industry has a sustained rate of progress that is anything even close to the computer chip industry.

Hence, computer scientists like to joke that if the auto industry had made improvements as steadily as the chip industry has, a top-of-the-line BMW would cost something like $20 and get about 5000 miles per gallon. The numbers in the joke vary, but the point is precise and correct: sustained progress has a compounding effect, which results in the J-Curve.

The Pauper and the King and the Exponents

The compounding effect embedded in exponential progressions is worth further exploration here, because it is central to one of the key and ongoing themes of our work, which is the acceleration of change. The technical definition of an exponential process is one that doubles repeatedly at a fixed interval. For some reason which is not entirely clear, humans are exceptionally poor at recognizing the full impact and consequences of exponentially-growing trends, and as a result we are often confounded when they appear. In fact, we seem to be consistently bad at recognizing and interpreting quantities that are very large, those that are very small, and those that change in non-linear ways, which is in fact what exponents do.

Here are two examples of how we are often fooled by exponential rates of change. The first is a fairy tale.

Long ago in a distant land, the king was out in the forest riding on his favorite white horse, which he preferred to do alone to the consternation of his closest advisors. Nevertheless, the king refused their entreaties to take a guard along, and on a clear but cold winter’s day as he was enjoying the forest trails, his horse was spooked by a snake, and took off at a sprint that left the poor king barely holding his place in the saddle. Alas, in its panic the horse soon ran far off the trail and among the trees, and the king was crashed into a large limb. Falling off the horse, he hit his head on a rock and fell unconscious.

While the horse eventually made it way back to the castle, the king lay there for some time, until an old man who lived in a small hut nearby happened upon the king, who will still unconscious on the ground. The old man half-carried and half-dragged the poor king back to his hovel, and there, he bandaged the king’s head, set his broken leg, and fed him small sips of tea. Eventually the king awakened, but his condition was obviously too poor for him to attempt to leave the hovel.

After some weeks of rest under the care of the old man, during which time the entire army was unsuccessfully combing the forest in search of the king, the king decided at last that he was strong enough to return home.

The old man led him back through the snow-covered forest to the main trail, upon which the king was then easily able to find his way home to the castle. Upon parting, the king thanked the old man profusely and told him that should he so desire, he could at any time visit the castle, and the king would have the pleasure of bestowing upon the man anything his heart desired. And so they parted, the king to his throne, and the old man to his hut in the forest.

Some months later, when winter had turned to spring, and spring to summer, and the snow was melted and the weather was fair, the old man presented himself at the castle and requested an audience with the king. However, not knowing of the king’s promise, he was rudely turned away by the king’s guard, and so the old man sat down at the gate and waited. The next day when the king came out on his horse the old man called to him, and the king did indeed recognize him, and had him brought into the castle and given a fine meal.

Finally the king asked what it was that the old man wished as his reward, to which the old man replied, “Your highness, I am but a simple man. I only need a small bit of rice to tide me through my days.”
“Then you shall have it,” the king replied. “How much shall it be?”
“Only a small amount, your majesty. Do you have chess board?”
“Of course I do,” replied the king.
“Then on it can you please place one grain of rice on the first square, and two on the second square, and four on the third, and 8 on the fourth, and so on?” asked the old man.
The king laughed at the foolish old man who was asking for nearly nothing when we could have had nearly anything!
“So it shall be,” replied the king. “Bring out the rice,” he instructed his advisors, and so they did.

They quickly discovered, however, that the old man was not so foolish as he appeared.

What the old man asked for, of course, was for the rice to be given to in an exponentially increasing rate. With each increment the amount doubled, which is exactly what an exponential trend such as Moore’s Law indicates.

For a while the numbers were indeed quite modest, but when they sustained the exponential trend toward the 64th iteration, which is of course the number of squares on a chess board, then something happened that was quite surprising to most people, including to the king and his advisors.

Here is a table showing the progression of numbers.2015 Sept Exponent TableUpon the last square, the 64th, we have attained a value of 9 to the 18th, or 9.2 quintillion, and this is, of course, a number far larger than all the grains of rice in the kingdom, and indeed in the entire world. It is a veritable Mt. Everest of rice, one that no one could eat even in a million years.

But of course by the time the advisors had reached even the third row of the board they foresaw what was coming because the pile of rice was already spilling out all over the place, and the king saw it as well, and understood that he had been fooled by his own ignorance. Being the king, he was not obliged to carry through the promise, which was in any event impossible, and so the advisors bundled up a great many bags of rice, and some soldiers carried them back to the hut in the forest. And in the end, of course, the rodents ate most of the rice, but the point was made, and the king and his advisors had learned a powerful lesson, the same lesson that the computer industry would learn a few hundred years later, that exponential trends lead to outcomes that are difficult to foresee, but which are utterly transformative when they do arrive.

So over the course of fifty years since Moore first made his calculation, the computing power of chips has doubled about 25 times, and the table above shows us that today’s computers are probably therefore about 16 million times more powerful than the computers of 1965. This by any standard a tremendous accomplishment.

And what if the progress underlying Moore’s Law is sustained for another decade? Then look at what’s likely to happen! For a computer a decade hence is likely to be 32 times more powerful that the computer of today, and a gargantuan 530 million times more powerful that the computer of 1965!

The second story now becomes fully relevant. It is a story told by the late Donella Meadows, who was one of the world’s prominent systems scientists and teachers of the modern era. She related the following story in her book Thinking in Systems, which I will paraphrase.

Being a professor at Dartmouth, she was very familiar with the small New England farm, which typically consisted of a farmhouse, a barn, some acreage, perhaps a small forest of Maple trees kept largely for their beauty as well as for their winter firewood and their spring syrup, and almost inevitably a pond. On the pond, in some years, would grow lilies, which could eventually choke off the oxygen and kill the fish. Hence, pond owners had to keep them mostly cleared.

So let’s say that on your own pond you notice a small patch of lilies, but it’s not enough to bother with, and anyway you’ve got a busy week ahead. Each day the patch doubles in size (the hidden exponent), but in this situation it’s going to be a finite trend, because the pond is only so large.

In any case, you come and go throughout the week, and by Friday when you return home you decide that you’ll have to get busy and do something about the lilies because they’ve now covered about a quarter of the pond. In a week’s time, you promise yourself, you’ll clean the pond. Too bad for you, because by then everything below the surface will be choked off and probably dead, for if the pond is one-quarter covered today, by tomorrow it will be one half, and the day after it will covered 100%. Your weekend is ruined by the unforeseen exponent.

This is the insidious nature of the exponential trend … that it appears rather insignificant for quite some time until quite suddenly, it seems to explode out of control. We are surprised by these types of trends, even when we shouldn’t be. Often this happens because we don’t recognize that the exponential pattern is what we’re confronted with. Hence, during the 1960s a group systems scientists including Donella Meadows rose to prominence when they pointed out that the human population was growing exponentially, and since they were among the few who understood what that actually meant, they did the rather simple math to help everyone else grasp the frightening consequences.

A successful and influential book of that era was The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich, and the term “population explosion” was coined to warn us about the terrible resource shortages that were coming. The world took the warning to heart, and in fact the rate of population growth slowed significantly, and it is still slowing today.

But the progression we know as Moore’s Law is not slowing, at least not yet, and the power of exponential growth it describes underlies a great many of today’s business success stories. Powerful and inexpensive computer chips are the core of the iPhone and Android phones, today’s laptops, the internet, the massive arrays of servers that power the internet, and thus it is central to today’s digital lifestyle. Without this trend there would be no Google, no Facebook, no Netflix… no NSA, no Snowden, and no cyber wars.

So where is all this headed?  It’s a great question, and one we will explore in subsequent blog posts, where we’ll examine robots, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and solar energy, all of which are dependent on digital technology, and all of which are bringing major change as a result of the continuing trend of exponential transformation.


This blog post is adapted from Langdon Morris’ forthcoming book, Mega Risk, which we expect to publish in Q1 2016.

As always, we welcome your thoughts and comments.


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