Why Isn’t the “Idea Driven Organization” More Common?


Mark's Note: This is a guest post from an old friend of the blog, Mark Edmondson. See his older guest posts from years back. He originally posted this on the AME website and he agreed to have me re-post it.

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Mark Edmondson

Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder, the authors of the Lean classic Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations (a must read for those of you who want to understand how to engage employees in CI) have recently published their newest book, The Idea-Driven Organization: Unlocking the Power in Bottom-Up Ideas.

Their website which includes their meaty blog is worth a visit.

Robinson and Schroeder present a compelling case for the business value of engaging employees:

  • greater morale,
  • competitive advantage,
  • operational excellence…

…and they profess that the most effective leaders are the ones who practice humility and respect.

I, too, believe that humility combined with true respect for employees is powerful.  I've seen it, I subscribe to it and I strive to model it. And I believe this type of servant leadership culture is key for a relevant, sustainable Lean transformation.

But, it seems like this style of leadership is also the exception rather than the norm among large American companies.

Why is this?

Is this idea-driven leadership style, in fact, less effective?  Or is the ego-eccentric individual better at self-promotion and hence more successful in a typical hierarchical bureaucracy?

In their books, Robinson and Schroeder provide examples of companies which are role models.  But virtually all of these are outside of the United States or are very small. Amongst North American large companies, which best exemplify the “Idea Driven Organization”?  Has anyone ever conducted a study to identify these companies?

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Mark Edmondson
Mark Edmondson is passionate about achieving rapid, breakthrough results during a company’s lean transformation. With 30 years of front-line experience while working with over 80 companies, Mr. Edmondson developed a philosophy of helping companies create a culture that sustains operational excellence through low cost yet transformative changes.


  1. Mark E. It is good to see you posting on here.

    I think Autoliv is a great example of engaging employees. They aren’t an “American” company, but there efforts in employee engagement started in some of their American plants.

    Maybe the reason we see less of this behavior is a question of priorities of the organization more than the selfish desires of the individual managers. It seems like few organizations put employee innovation at the top of their to-do lists, because “it takes too much time”. The leaders that do it know that by innovating, improving, and engaging employees time is saved in the long run, but someone needs to start the ball rolling. When they start the ball rolling it is an exciting time for all the employees, and can really make work a lot of fun. Any manager can start the ball rolling in their area, but few are asked to look much further than the day’s tasks and maybe a few special projects.

    I wonder how many of the large American companies even introduce this concept in their “lean sigma” classes. I know I have worked for 2 fortune 500 companies and one other large company and none of them taught these concepts in the approved training or belt programs. It seems to be all about leading the “million dollar project”.

  2. There are some great examples out there… some of which we documented in our Healthcare Kaizen book series.

    One is my co-author’s organization, Franciscan St. Francis health system. They are implementing and documenting about 4,000 small improvements each year (I think they’ll hit 25,000 sometime this year). ThedaCare says they are doing 10,000+ per year (in addition to their Rapid Improvement Events). Even these best of the healthcare organizations are doing just 2 to maybe 5 kaizens per employee per year. There’s so much potential.

    Kaizen in healthcare is soooo beneficial (millions a year in savings, quality, safety, patient satisfaction), I have to admit it’s frustrating that this approach and mindset hasn’t spread like wildfire.

    Brandon has a great point about the bias in classes and corporate programs. The last manufacturing company I worked for 10 years ago was all about Six Sigma projects (led by experts) and Lean events (also led by experts). It was expert driven and ignored the approach of engaging everybody (even though I advocated for that the best I could).

    It’s hard to get people out of their old mindsets that include the employees not really being that important (the managers and experts know everything) and the mindset that we don’t have time for improvement (how do we MAKE time for improvement?).

    It’s encouraging though when I do get to work with organizations that are getting started with Kaizen. Everybody gets excited… but the staff members’ main question is about whether their leaders actually have the dedication to “stick with this” or if they’ll be distracted by the next shiny thing that comes along.

    • I think one of the major reasons is that managers are afraid of lossing controls. These managers may not be technically competent, lack of confidence or not motivated. Even they see the benefits of the improvements, they will not do it. Too sad, but that is the reality in many organizations. The cure for this problem is to create a working environment by the top management so that all employees are motivated to particiapate in the improvement and all managers are countable for participation of his own team. The Continental Corporation’s Idea Management program is an excellent example. If our top managements lack interest, forget about this all together.

  3. We want to encourage improvement ideas at the local level whenever possible but have not implemented an official idea program – not because we don’t have time or respect the ideas of our employees. I’m toying with the idea of it but struggle with how to handle the ideas that cross departments.

    In an effort to break down silos, I would want an idea system that allowed people to have ideas that may help across groups but would have to be led by someone outside of the department with the idea. I just had one come across my desk today. I did my best to encourage pursuing the idea with the appropriate area while making sure they collected data and identified that there is indeed a problem to solve.

    We are in the middle of changing our culture to one of continuous improvement from one of solution jumping by making sure our processes are standardized and using A3 thinking to improve. Many times the root cause uncovered in the A3 is ‘lack of standard work’ and the solution they wanted to implement wouldn’t have been successful. It’s a balance between training on the tools and the thinking to build a foundation of improvement and encouraging high volume of ideas on which to drive improvement.

    I will spend some time with the ‘Idea Driven Blog’ and see if I can gain some insights on how to be a success idea driven organization.

  4. The Idea-Driven Blog is great, and I feel like I learn something from them in every post.

    We also care very deeply about these issues and we try to help organizations manage the ideas that result from developing a culture of CI. I would encourage you to check out our KaiNexus blog, where we talk often about these topics:


    Our web-based software platform is perfect for providing cross-departmental or value stream visibility to people who are trying to collaborate across different departments. We’d be the first to agree that the tools (including a methodology and some technology to support it) and the thinking (how we lead) are a critically important combination.

    If you’re interested, you can definitely learn more at http://www.kainexus.com


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