The simple improvement board. Not so simple.

Organizations often start on their lean journeys with visual boards to track improvement projects. My recent experience with a new client, however, has shown me that it’s better to start with something much simpler: a basic suggestion board dealing with simple problems. No, implementing these ideas won’t move the needle on the business’s financial results, but starting with a basic board like this is a critical foundational step.

Here are four reasons why these boards are important.

1. They create the right mindset and culture.
It takes a long time before an organization reaches the point where “no problem is a problem.” In most companies, problems are something to be hidden or ignored. Sharing them can be embarrassing, if not threatening. Having people post improvement ideas about how to make their own work easier or faster—to fix what bugs them—is a powerful way to getting them more comfortable with the concept of making their issues visible, to both their peers and to leadership. This kind of simple board is an important first step to creating a culture in which it’s okay to make problems visible.

2. They keep ownership of the problem where it belongs.
Well-designed suggestion cards always have the employee’s name at the top to reinforce the understanding that the employee—not management—owns both the problem and the countermeasure. In this way, the card creates a profoundly different dynamic from a simple complaint to a supervisor. That kind of conversation typically results in the problem being dropped onto a manager’s to-do list, where it may or may not get done in a timely fashion.  Leadership must support the employee in solving the problem, of course, but responsibility lies with the worker.

3. They provide an opportunity for learning how to solve problems.
Improvement cards provide a chance for managers to help employees develop problem solving skills. Because workers retain ownership of the problems, they have to think through root causes and create possible countermeasures. Even if the problem is simple (say, needing more light at their workspace) they can be coached through the development of alternative solutions and assessment of the consequences of each choice—which is a useful habit when the problems they’re solving become more complex.

4. They deepen leadership understanding.
The TV show Undercover Boss depicts situations where executives are comically (tragically?) ignorant of the reality of frontline workers’ daily lives. But even in a small company, it’s easy for the leadership team to lose touch. Even at the earliest stages, when improvement boards deal with simple issues that make work more difficult for the employees, the suggestions—and the conversations around them—give leadership a deeper understanding of what’s happening at the gemba, and develop closer ties and greater engagement throughout the organization.

You don’t start training to swim the English Channel with a five-hour ocean swim. You start with five laps in your local pool. In the same way, you shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to set up elaborate visual management systems to track and control operational processes. Your organization probably lacks the skills and culture to support it. A simple suggestion board for improvements is a great way to lay a solid foundation for the lean journey ahead.