Interview with Lean Guru Norman Bodek, Part 2


Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to have a telephone chat and discussion with Norman Bodek, a man who needs little introduction to this lean audience. Norman is, most recently, the author of books such as All You Gotta Do Is Ask and Kaikaku: The Power and Magic of Lean.

Here is Part 1 of the Q&A if you missed it. Check out my podcasts with Norman Bodek, as well.

Q: Do you think the failure to implement lean stems mainly from poor management and poor leadership at upper levels?

A: It's not poor management. Maybe they're being pressured in a direction that Toyota doesn't have to follow. With top-down management, all brilliant thinking comes from the top. All strategy comes from the top. And, implementation of all strategy has to come from the top; they have to tell people what to do.

Toyota has switched this around very subtly. They will direct the strategy for what people should be doing, like making cars, the best possible cars, but we don't tell people how to do it.

I have an example, I use this in my book Kaikaku. A Toyota leader was standing in front of a warehouse and said, “I want you to get rid of this warehouse because at Toyota we don't need a warehouse, we do it all just in time.” He said, “I want the warehouse to disappear in one year. I want you to make it into a machine shop and train everyone in that building to become a mechanic. I'll give you one year,” and he left. He didn't tell them how to do it, that's the power of Japanese management.

Management, instead of being controllers and not trusting people, we reverse it and give people incredible respect and say, “Look, you know your job better than anybody, you're doing it every day.” Instead of me telling you how to do it, I'm going to ask you to solve problems in your area. I'm going to help you implement. That's management's job, to help get the resources you need to do your job better and trust that you can do it.

Q: How do you get people to give up that power/control at the top?

A: People have to give up the power, that's the secret of this. For management to recognize that instead of being “the boss,” they are the coach. Their goal is to be like Phil Jackson, the coach on the L.A. Lakers. You have great talent. You have to be very careful in hiring people, that people are going to fit the theToyotamold and image. You want people who are going to be team players then teach them to play in a team.

We [in America] don't teach people how to work in teams. We want to keep them isolated little pawns that we control and hire and fire at will. A team is so much more powerful than separate individuals that are part of a team.

Q: Don't most companies and HR systems provide incentives against working as a team?

A: Even though GE did get rid of the 10% at the bottom [every year], which I don't like, what they did very positively was they really developed the best. GE probably spent more money training than any other company out there. They really invested.

Q: What is powerful about “Quick and Easy Kaizen?”

A: What I like about Quick and Easy Kaizen, is that the best way to teach people is from their own ideas.

In Japan, at Nippon Steel, this man was working on the factory floor and he noticed when the door to the oven opened up and the steel wasn't moving along, a tremendous amount of hot air came out of the oven and when the door closed they had to reheat the oven again, which was very expensive.

His wife suggested that when she went to a department store in the wintertime, there was no door, there was an air curtain. He came back to work and asked “couldn't we do the same thing?”The boss said “Great, you go do it.”

But the man argued, “I don't know anything about electricity.”The boss offered to get an electrician to show him how to install the electricity and to put in the fan. That way, the worker is developing talent from their own ideas, which's very very powerful.

There are always a million excuses not to do something, but if you want to be internationally competitive, you have to involve every single worker in this process. It's so simple to do.

You're not looking for big ideas, you want small ideas. Innovation will come from your engineers, your selected people. We want everybody to look for opportunities for a safer place to work. We want everybody to focus on quality improvement.

Q: How do you teach people that focus?

A: To add to the strength of the worker, we should teach them the fundamentals of industrial engineering. We should teach them value analysis. We should teach them the quality tools. Give them the skills so they can solve problems.

It's a simple system. A worker finds a problem and has a suggestion, they write it up for their supervisor. The write-up goes on the wall so others can see it and learn from it, so they can copy it.

Q: Is this suggestion process similar to the scientific method, where you have a hypothesis for change, and then you test it?

You have to be careful, every idea is a great idea. If a supervisor says, “That's not really what we're looking for” and the worker turned to his colleague and said, “I'll never give another idea again.”

You have to teach supervisors how to be positive, even when the idea is absolutely crazy (such as putting a roof over the parking lot to avoid getting drenched). You say, “What else can we do?”If you ask the right questions, the worker will come up with the right answer, maybe they just need an umbrella.

You're empowering the workers to be part of the improvement process, you're giving them respect as people.

You can learn more about Mr. Bodek and his books at his website,, as well as his new blog. His books are also available at

His upcoming book is titled Rebirth of American Industry – A Study of Lean Manufacturing, and is co-authored with Bill Waddell.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Great interview. We’ve found Norman Bodek’s process for engaging employees is simple and effective.

    I recall when Norman and I were meeting with a client who had a “suggesstion system” with a rule that only ideas worth $2,000 or more would be considered. After listening to Norman’s message of the importance of encouraging all ideas, the plant manager asked why should they bother encouraging small ideas with no significant “ROI”.

    Norman thought for a second, and said, “You’re not just trying to solve problems, you’re creating problem solvers.”

    That was an “ah ha” point for all of us.

  2. This is ironic. The post below Norman’s interview is about Bill Ford’s “plan for reinventing the company.” Here’s an except from the article the post references:

    “Bill Ford on Monday announced a new Web-based system that allows employees to submit ideas directly to his senior management team. ‘Sometimes our bureaucracy can be ponderous and not always receptive to a different approach,’ Bill Ford said.

    “More than just a clearer conduit for communicating ideas to the top, the new Web site forces employees to think their ideas through before submitting them. It asks employees to classify their ideas as technical innovations, business improvements, operational efficiencies, competitive advantages or ways to improve relations between the company and its workers, suppliers or customers. The Web site also asks employees to rate the potential impact of their ideas. Are they on par with the sort of innovations that made Ford great? Will they change the lives of consumers? Will they open new markets? Will they lead to industry-firsts or improve Ford’s competitive position? Ultimately, employees reach a screen that lets them type in an outline of their proposal or submit a previously prepared document.”

    Now how long do you think Ford executives will have the patience and time read, evaluate, approve, and implement all of these employee ideas flowing from their “new Web-based system? Isn’t this just another bureaucratic process?

    Bodek’s Quick & Easy process doesn’t require executives’ approval. The employee has a good idea for his/her own job, writes it up on a brief form, shares it with their team, and then implements it. Quick, easy, no bureaucracy.

    Another irony: Norman has attempted for years to bend Ford’s ear about how to engage employees. No response.

  3. Yes, I’m sure Norm wouldn’t recommend that all suggestions have to go up through “senior management.”

    Unless, maybe, that suggestion is “quite building boring lame cars like the 500.”

    That one’s a little tougher for average Joe worker to implement. :-)

  4. Yes. As you know, management is responsible for providing most “breakthrough” ideas (Kaikaku), AND they’re also responsible for encouraging “everyone, everyday” to contribute many yet small ideas (Kaizen).

    Norman uses Toyota and Technicolor as a model- the average value of an employee idea is only about $200, yet collectively, Toyota attributes $300m per year in savings from these small ideas. Technicolor saves about $10m per year from a plant with 1,800 employees by using Quick & Easy.

    But with Ford’s new “web-based system”, how will their executives react when employees submit an idea that’s worth very little? Will Bill Ford praise and encourage the idea sent to him for relocating the trash bin to incrementally reduce motion? My concern is that they may dismiss it as not significant, thereby unintentinally discouraging future ideas.

    Again, this should be a process to create problem solvers, engage employees and improve labor relations…not to just cull out the few blockbuster ideas. We’re trying to change behavior, not just look for ROI.



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