Podcast #217 – Interview with Alan Robinson, Co-Author of The Idea-Driven Organization



Our guest today is Alan G. Robinson, PhD, an award-winning author, educator, researcher and consultant. He has co-authored six books, including Modern Approaches to Manufacturing Improvement: The Shingo System, Ideas Are Free, and his latest, The Idea-Driven Organization. His specialties include managing continuous improvement, creativity, ideas and innovation, and Lean production, being one of the earliest professors to visit Japan to study the Toyota Production System.

In this episode, we talk about the history of suggestion programs (and a surprising detail about their history), why 80% of an organization's improvement comes from staff ideas, and why high-performing idea systems are rare. We also talk about some of the pitfalls of traditional cost-benefit analysis, the role of leaders and humility, and a company, Scania, that intentionally overstaffs to provide time for Kaizen, leading to 12-15% annual productivity improvement. Why is mankind still battling against command-and-control management systems? And what's the real story behind American Airlines famously removing an olive from their salads?

We cover all of that and more in this episode.

Key links and websites:

For a link to this episode, refer people to www.leanblog.org/217.

For earlier episodes of my podcast, visit the main Podcast page, which includes information on how to subscribe via RSS or via Apple Podcasts.  You can also subscribe and listen via Stitcher.

Some videos with Alan:

An interview after visiting VIBCO:

A short alk:

Feedback & Comments:

If you have feedback on the podcast, or any questions for me or my guests, you can email me at leanpodcast@gmail.com or you can call and leave a voicemail by calling the “Lean Line” at (817) 993-0630 or contact me via Skype id “mgraban”. Please give your location and your first name. Any comments (email or voicemail) might be used in follow ups to the podcast.

Partial Transcript:

Mark: Some of the history that you've explored in both “Ideas are Free,” and “The Idea Driven Organization,” I learned a lot from this — some of the history around the origins of suggestion box systems, and why those have been generally dysfunctional compared to idea systems, or Kaizen, or however you want to label it.Could you talk to listeners a little bit about what were some of the things that were surprising or interesting to you about the history of suggestion boxes?

Alan: There's a couple of interesting things. First of all, that it doesn't go back very far. I love history. I read a lot of history when I'm on airplanes or at the beach. I like reading history books, and it's just always been a joy of mine.At the moment, the furthest back — there's been some hand-waving and rumors, but the furthest back documented system where you can actually go look at the ideas and read all about it, and it's in archives is William Denny Shipbuilders of River Clyde in Scotland, and that was in the late 19th century.

My theory is that any large organization, say, of several thousand people that was organized and functioning relatively efficiently, had to have some approach to listening to what was going on at Gemba so to speak, or they couldn't be able to just keep it together.

I'm looking right now on my desk after this call, I'm reading the archives of the Springfield Armory which was the first big factory with thousands of people, it was in a war situation.

Mark: Here in the US?

Alan: Here in the US, absolutely, I didn't say that. George Washington commissioned it and they had to produce hundreds of thousands of muskets in time and ammunition to hold back the British. There was considerable urgency about it and it was extremely well run and extremely well achieved. I'm digging there.Another place that I believe they had a suggestion system and I have seen some smoke, I just haven't gotten to the fire yet, is the definition arsenal in the 14th century.

Mark: It sees like a lot of the thinking or good improvement thinking, you hear examples from Benjamin Franklin and others. But the formal structure…You have an idea, you write it on paper and jam it into a box. Some of that formality or bureaucracy is maybe more recent.

Alan: Actually, that's a great idea. Benjamin Franklin, he was the first post master general, he was running the post office. Today the post office has pretty good idea system and I bet you, he listened to the post masters and after a while, once he had a lot of post offices going, he had to make something formal because he couldn't take it in orally, so to speak.There is that piece. Then the other piece of the suggestion box history is, it really tracks very closely and this is what I am writing and thinking about right now for a couple of articles. It really strikes very closely, I would say, “Mankind's battle with command and control.” There's has been a lot of Norman Bodek's latest book starts out with, “Command and control is dead.” [laughs]

Well, he's not dead yet. Most people in the world, work in top down command and control environments, and we all kind of know that, that's better than anarchy, but now they're much better models to manage, they get much better results.

If we want to just talk about suggestion box type programs, most of those are online now. Those are the reason why the world is still looking at, most companies still uses suggestion box approach, is because it fits very well with command and control. It doesn't threaten the hierarchy at all. It never brings in too much feedback, too many ideas. If am a command and control leader, it fits with, “Yes there will be some stuff coming up but not too much,” It's not that important.

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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. Small wins and success keep the enterprise engages. That suggests that employees on the shop floor should only be involved in rapid improvement projects. The larger projects should be owned by CI experts. These experts should pull in required resources only when needed

    • I think the bigger opportunity is not referring to improvements as “projects.” Small improvements done in the Kaizen style, driven by staff, aren’t big enough to be called “projects.”

      The idea of a “project” is often intimidating to people. Small improvements shouldn’t be intimidating.


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