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I’m not sure I understand solving problems one by one.

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’m not sure I understand solving problems one by one. I thought listing problems and pushing hard to get them solved faster would improve my operations faster – am I missing something?

Ah, yes, well. Ask yourself: what is the aim of problem solving? Is it fixing everything so the process works better? Or is it using problem solving as a method to make people think and work better together? The lean answer, of course, is the second. Before we go into that, we first need to understand why our instinct tells us: work faster!

We have all been brought up in Frederick Taylor’s world of standardized processes. Frederick Taylor set out to solve a very clear problem in his terms: when left alone, people will “soldier on” or “loaf” – do the minimum to get by. If they did more, he assumed they would be afraid that their manager would then expect more, and so on. As a result, Taylorist thinking is always about controlling people to make sure they are working and not loafing on the job – the process is paramount to do so.

Toyota leaders asked themselves a very different question: how can we grow without being hampered by Big Company Disease, which is turning the focus away from solving customer problems by improving operations and towards focusing on our internal issues and turf wars. There is a simple test for Big Company Disease: In the problems you’re asked to solve, how many are problems your final or internal customer faces? How many are internal systems issues that need to be resolved to maintain the status quo?

The True Aim of Problem Solving

In lean we’re not trying to solve all problems quickly so that the process is perfect. We’re trying to teach people how to better satisfy their customers and handle their processes so that they’re more engaged in their work, and so with their customers – so that work makes better sense. There are essentially three lean techniques to do so:

  1. Teach people to clarify their daily plan: by visualizing what we should be achieving today and how we intend to do so, we sustain every one’s inborn creative tension every day without management pressure.
  2.  Teach people work standards: there’s a lot to know in any job and no one knows it all, so we set up an on-the-job system such as andon calls, dojo trainings, daily team briefing to remind people to brush up on this or that standard, starting with safety standards. This is teaching what is known (it’s okay to suggest a change of standard, which is the next point).
  3. Engage people in on- by-one problem solving to improve standards and discover unexplored aspects of their work: the aim of problem solving is people development, not fixing the process in its entirety.

Lean is a system: don’t look at problem solving separately from just-in-time. By working one-piece-flow, we can tackle problems one by one, that’s the mantra.

When we do put lists of problems on the wall, these are solved problems, for educational purposes, and NOT a backlog of problems to solve to pressure people in solving them faster. Problems are, well, problems, and how can you control how fast they get solved? You do need to be relentless, however, about the takt of problems solved one by one. For instance, in many operations, I’ll ask the manager to go into the details of one small problem a day to show and tell team leaders: Is the problem clearly expressed? Is the cause factual? Is the countermeasure astute? Has it worked?

Kaizen Spirit vs Action Plan Obsession

Do we have lists of problems in our notebooks or computers? Sure we do – as we explore any situations, there’s rarely one clear problem or one clear answer. Of course we list problems all the time – but then we do not go through the list as an action plan. We tackle one issue and take the time to go through the PDCA thoroughly to reach the Act point and then we draw a problem short list again. Chances are the situation has changed and the list is different. If the list is the same, so far so good, let’s tackle problem number two. Planning is essential but no plan survives contact with reality. So plans to solve a number of problems are great, but we still do it one by one and then plan again.

It’s hard to abandon the Taylorist feeling that if I don’t list problems and push people through them nothing will happen. The reality is that the more you pressure your people, the more they’ll resent and resist you, and in the end, you work yourself in a standstill – I’ve unfortunately done that myself more times that I’d like to admit. The mental change to engaging and training people and then being confident that things will improve faster than with micro-managing them is never easy.

So, yes, problems are solved one by one. The advice of Toyota’s Hajime Oba to suppliers was: think deeply, try immediately, do small, and always focus on the next step --kaizen spirit as opposed to action plan obsession.