For the Want of a Screwdriver…


This isn't a story about my frustration with a State of Texas office… it's mainly a story about a failed “kaizen”-style improvement attempt that a good-natured state employee would have liked to have made – but yeah, it would have made my life a bit easier.

After seven years of use, I had to get new Texas license plates. I decided to pay a small fee for a “specialized” plate design – the design, not what it spells. I am too cheap to get something like “KAI 2EN” or something as a license plate (that's a bigger fee). And, “KAI ZEN” is taken anyway…

After waiting in a line (of course, as you might expect in a state office), the nice woman at the counter asked if I had the old plates and sticker with me to turn in. No, because I've never had to turn in old plates before. She said it's a new Texas rule/law (maybe as of August 1).

I didn't have a screwdriver or Allen wrench with me to go out to the parking lot to take off the old plates.

I asked, “I'm sure the answer is no, but do you have a screwdriver handy that I could borrow for a few minutes?”

To my surprise, she smiled and said, “I've asked for that… but they say we don't have one.”

She seemed very sincere about her desire to have a screwdriver to lend to me – a small action that would save me an extra trip and some time (plus it would benefit the others who are in this same position).

So here's an example of a state employee thinking about her customers… trying to have something easy and inexpensive that would help people. And…. she's told “no.”

A basic cheap screwdriver just costs a few bucks, right?

They could hold your driver's license as collateral, even, if they are afraid of the screwdriver walking away.

It's sad when people have ideas for improvement, but their managers say “no.” The employee has no recourse. They are the ones having to face frustrated taxpayers, not the manager (and I wasn't frustrated, I was bemused and pretty nice about the situation).

In the “kaizen” approach to improvement, managers don't just say “yes” or “no” to employee suggestions. With kaizen, we honor the people doing the work by working WITH them to find something that addresses the problem or opportunity they have identified.

Bureaucratic or controlling managers say “no.” Leaders find a way to say “yes” – if not to the original idea, but to work together to find SOMETHING  that can be implemented (at least 90% of the time, in a good kaizen system).

When I make my SECOND trip back to the office, I'll be bringing a screwdriver. Maybe I'll donate it to the State of Texas.

They say “Don't Mess With Texas,” but I guess it's OK for Texas to mess with you?  :-)

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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. But there’s always a work-around: use a dime to remove the slotted screws, plus I have a small blade in my Swiss Army Knife (complete with USB drive) that has worked to take out Phillips screws with the large pattern. I wonder if the state worker would have / could have given you change for a dollar if you didn’t have a dime on you.

    • The screws on my plates are hex screws – harder to steal, I guess, but also meant I couldn’t use a dime or quarter. A flat head screwdriver of the proper size would work.


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