Kaizen: What if We Get Bad Ideas from Employees?


In our Healthcare Kaizen books, Joe Swartz and I have tried to make the case that the Kaizen style of continuous improvement isn't just a nice way to treat employees… it's smart business and it's good for patients. It's a practical approach that we can make a part of our organizational culture with effort, patience, creativity, and discipline. We can all do this. We can try to engage everybody in ongoing continuous improvement.

The biggest challenge or complaint I get thrown back at me is a leader saying “we don't have time for improvement.” To that, I say you have to make time for Kaizen. If it's important, you'll make time and you'll find a way. If you want to give Kaizen lip service, you'll make excuses. If you're serious about it, you'll solve the “no time” problem and other barriers (see a video of me giving a talk on this theme via LEI).

The other big concern is leaders asking:

“What if our employees give us bad ideas?”

They don't mean “bad” the way Michael Jackson did in this album, of course. He meant “bad” was good, right?

The smart-alecky response would be, “Well, what do you think would happen?”

Much of the concern about bad ideas is grounded in the outdated suggestion box model.

What happens in that model?

  1. Employee has idea
  2. Employee puts written idea on box
  3. Idea sits in box for a month or two
  4. A committee or a group managers reviews the idea
  5. The group decides “yes” or “no”

There are many problems there, including the “yes or no” mindset.

In this mindset, managers are afraid they will waste a lot of time reviewing “bad ideas” and rejecting them.

But, Kaizen is Different

Kaizen isn't a glorified suggestion box. It's not a visual suggestion box on a bulletin board. It's not an electronic suggestion box-type system.

It's a different mindset.

Managers have to collaborate with their employees. They have to work together to find something they CAN implement instead of just saying no.

When a “bad idea” comes in, the manager doesn't just reject it. They ask questions.

“What is the problem or the opportunity you have identified?” (Thanks for pointing out this problem or opportunity, by the way).

“What other potential solutions or countermeasures did you consider?”

“Why do you think that is the best idea to try?”

“Is there a way we could do a small, risk-free test to see if the idea would work?”

There are so many constructive and positive things a manager can do when there's a “bad idea.” We don't have to respond in a way that makes people feel bad or dumb. But, we shouldn't be passive aggressive either.

If somebody suggests something that would be unsafe, we should help them understand why… and help them come up with another idea that might solve that problem.

If somebody has an idea that would violate a rule or regulation, the manager should explain that to the employee… and, again, help them find something different to implement.

What's the worse that could happen if you get a “bad idea?”

The worst would be telling the employee “that's a dumb idea.” Almost as bad would be to just reject or ignore the idea.

Our employees deserve better.

You don't think you can afford the time to interact with employees that way? Can you afford not to? Find a way… you can do it.

Want to learn more about Kaizen? Check out these upcoming webinars and a workshop I'm doing in October.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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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. Comment from Ron Phipps via LinkedIn:

    And shift the response to recognizing the employee for providing an idea, rather than the quality of the idea. This allows you to then follow up on reviewing its merits, risks, alternatives, etc. and collaborating to make the idea better in a positive light. It also should create a culture that promotes more ideas, regardless of the methods used.

  2. From Josh Tucker via Linkedin:

    I would agree. I am trying to use the socratic method more (its difficult to change old habits) and absolutely love it. I find not only do I learn more but the discussion is better and it helps people think for themslves instead of being told an answer. Encouraging feedback is fruitful

  3. From Christian Dinesen via LinkedIn:

    And what if we get bad ideas from our senior executives…..?

    My response:

    Oh, employees worry about that all the time! Hopefully, in a healthy Lean/Kaizen culture, employees can tell their senior executive that something is a bad idea… and senior leaders, if they give ideas, are suggesting, not commanding.

  4. Very good post and timely as we my organization is implementing our first idea board in a clinical area.

    We’ve had both questions/issues raised during the implementation, i.e. where to find time and what about BAD ideas.

    We’re getting there.

  5. When I saw the title of your post I thought you would say, “There’s no such thing as a bad idea.” That is the way I look at it and that is what I tell our associates. If nothing else, any idea causes us to look at the situation and may spark other ideas which may work better. Then everyone can feel like they contributed to the problem solving process.

    Of course this can only work if we really have respect for people and believe that we hired them for their minds as well as their hands.

    • Dale, you’re right. I’ve said that here before and we’ve said it that way in our Healthcare Kaizen books.

      I’m saying the same thing here in a different way. Don’t just throw away or reject ideas. Use the “bad” idea as a starting point for discussion and collaboration and find something to implement.

      I believe “there’s no such thing as a bad idea” but most people out there don’t think that way.

      I’m somewhat mirroring their language in this post and the title, because people quite literally ask that exact question very often. I’m trying to meet them where they are. The “bad” idea should be the starting point to find an idea that is better.

      Thanks for your comment and pushing on that point…

  6. Great post, and a common enough complaint among our managers. I just shared it as this month’s “Toyota Blurb” for our leadership group of about 120 hospital employees. Thanks!

  7. I’d like to also add that ideas should be tested quickly, with brief discussion AFTERWARDS about the test result: i.e. did it improve the process (improve flow, etc.). People would rather see their idea fail in quick testing than in lengthy conference room discussions that precede testing. The time scale associated with kaizen is supposed to be short to improve processes quickly.

    • Great point, Bob. Small-scale tests of change are key. I was at a hospital recently where, like many others, they admit to being prone to doing a “hospital-wide roll out” instead of a smaller, more local test of change.

      I agree we should be biased toward testing the idea on a small scale. The manager might think it’s a bad idea, but how do you know until you try?

      I think the only exceptions are:

      1) When somebody reasonably predicts that a test would be unsafe
      2) If there’s a huge expense

      Then again, a huge expense can often be made far less expensive by doing a smaller-scale test of change first. It’s amazing how many people and organizations don’t do that. They are biased toward their idea being great, so they rush rush rush. When they are biased toward the idea being bad, they’ll drag their feet forever and never test.

  8. Here is a blog post by Dean Schroeder (co-author of “The Idea-Driven Organization”):

    There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Idea …. Yah…Right!

    In part:

    Let’s face it; despite the tired cliché ‘there is no such thing as a bad idea,’ some are just plain terrible. They may not work, be too expensive, are unsafe or perhaps even illegal. This is not to say that these bad ideas are not worthwhile. What seems like a terrible idea may in fact have great value. Among other things, such ideas are good indicators of where employees need coaching, training, or just more information.

    A “bad idea” is a starting point for discussion, not an end point.


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