I recently revisited Yoshihito Wakamatsu’s great book, The Toyota Mindset: The Ten Commandments of Taiichi Ohno. Taiichi Ohno was the incredible mind behind the Toyota Production System (TPS), the system that brought Lean into the mainstream and developed the foundation for one of the world’s largest and most successful automotive brands. Beyond Ohno’s innovative approach to manufacturing and leadership, he focused incessantly on the importance of creativity and ideation for continuous improvement.

Ohno was the godfather of continuous improvement (or kaizen, for all you Lean practitioners). He realized that to stay ahead of competitors and provide customers with amazing products, an organization must continually develop new ideas to grow and succeed. The goal was to never stop looking for new ways to improve the organization.

A classic Ohno quote is, “Improve further what you have already continuously improved. That is what separates true professionals from average workers”. He was an intense guy who pushed his teams to do the impossible. He taught his teams to never give up until a problem was solved. The way to do this was to keep developing new ideas. The power of ideas is what drives all improvement and innovation, something every company cannot outsource or do once-in-awhile. It must be an ongoing process. Ohno stressed this daily to his teams.

Where Ohno stood out was the mindset that new ideas and innovation had to come from the employees. It could not be driven top-down, but had to come from the people who were doing the work. The people that experienced a problem had to be the ones to solve it. To become a culture based on creativity and continuous improvement, every employee had to develop new ideas.

Every employee was expected to use their intelligence along with continuous improvement to improve everything, even those projects that many felt were impossible to achieve. Another Ohno quote provides insight into his mindset, “Impossibility leads to new ideas.” The difficulty of solving complex problems helps motivate workers to use all their intellectual possibilities. And, the only way to achieve goals was to start and try something (you had to try, not just give up with no effort). Don’t just say something is impossible, go out and try it and keep pushing until you solve the problem.

Unfortunately, too many leaders do not focus (or encourage) employees to keep improving themselves, their work, or the organization. Employees are not encouraged to improve the organization; rather just maintain the status-quo and “do their job”. Smart leaders encourage new ideas from everyone, in every area of the organization. These organizations encourage the development of new ideas, but also the implementation and monitoring of those ideas to determine the success (or failure) and to keep improving. It was not just to learn new methods, but put them into practice and test their effectiveness. Employees were continually challenged to keep improving and use creativity to outthink competitors and wow customers.

Ohno hated it when employees relied on others to solve problems or just procrastinate. Every employee was expected to find and fix problems and areas that needed improvement; proactive rather than reactive.

So how does this relate to your organization? Too often I ask audiences if their organization is innovative. Unfortunately, the majority of people never raise their hands. They feel their organization is not creative or innovative. You can see the frustration on their faces.

Unfortunately, most of us were never taught how to be creative. Most people feel that new ideas just happen or there are only certain people who can be creative and develop great ideas. The problem with this mindset is the majority of corporate assets (i.e., employees) are wasted, not leveraged to the maximum. Everyone can and must be creative. It is management’s responsibility to train, encourage, and challenge every employee to be creative and keep improving the organization.

So how do you create an organization that focuses on continuous improvement and developing and implementing new ideas? Well, the best way to accomplish this is from the top-down. For an organization to develop a culture of creativity and innovation, it must come from the top-down. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. So how do you improve your own world?

If your leaders do not see the critical importance of creativity and innovation within all aspects of the organization, start with yourself. It is extremely difficult to change other people. It is much easier to change yourself. Learn some simple creative ideation tools (e.g., Random Word, Biomimicry, SCAMPER), practice with some low-hanging fruit, and then share with co-workers. As you learn, share, and gain confidence, you will gain more apostles. The goal is to build an army of creative thinkers, one person at a time.

As Ohno always stressed, “Create an environment where your subordinates are always encouraged to formulate their own solutions through the process one step at a time.” Be patient but change your attitude from waking up every morning to just “go to work”, to waking up every morning and looking forward to creating new ideas and changing the organization. Don’t wait for your senior leaders to change and improve the organization, start with yourself.

“I want everyone to use your brain – you all must train yourselves so that you will learn to generate your own ideas for the most critical issues.” – Taiichi Ohno

“Do not fear failures and just give it a try – encourage them to repeat continuous improvement over and over.” – Taiichi Ohno