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Problem Solving Fast and Slow

by Ben Root
July 15, 2014

Problem Solving Fast and Slow

by Ben Root
July 15, 2014 | Comments (7)

In my role as an instructor at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Japan, I got to witness top leaders solve problems. They would literally rush into a meeting room, or more often, to a piece of paper on a wall in the production area, and talk rather animatedly about the information in front of them. 

Once I observed three or four people all writing and talking about a problem at the same time, and in just a few minutes they had drawn the problem (literally drawn a picture of the problem), set a goal, completed a quick cause and effect diagram, and created a plan to investigate what they thought to be the cause of the problem. 

To an outsider, this type of quick problem solving was amazing. Seeing this team’s thinking process, analysis, and communication in action was like watching a professional sports team make an awesome play at the end of the game.  

However, this is not what Toyota encouraged us to do as team members on the shopfloor. If they saw us jump from the problem to the solution, they would often say, "Not enough thinking. Please do more investigation." To them, fast wasn’t necessarily good. We learned to go slow and be thorough. But, after much practice, we became very good at looking at a problem, doing analysis, and solving the problem quickly. This same pattern went for Job Instruction. At first our training was slow, but over time we learned to train quickly. And we saw that standardized work would eventually also be completed by experts with pencil and paper in a very short time. 

I could probably think of a few more examples of "fast Lean" at Toyota, but honestly, speed was never the motivation for making an improvement. Of course, when there was a machine breakdown the maintenance team would rush to the machine similar to a paramedic rushing to an accident. They would treat the machine as though it had just had a heart attack, making sure not to waste one motion in trying to restore the machine to health. Time lost was measured in seconds, not minutes or hours. The same was true when the assembly line was down or a quality issue arose. Problem solving teams attacked the problem with unbelievable speed and efficiency.

There are many paradoxes about the Toyota Production System. Speed is certainly one of them. "Do it slowly, but quickly." Another is "make sure everything is standardized, but constantly improve." Fascinating, isn't it? 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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7 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban July 15, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Ben - that is fascinating. What was your experience with the commonly expressed notion of "go slow to go fast" in terms of planning a launch or developing a new process

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Mike Denison July 15, 2014
Toyota is full of seemingly paradox thinking. I think this is why it confuses many people. They read one thing then find something else that completely "seems" to contradict what they first read.
There is a clear psychology about going slow to move fast and this is one of deliberate and critical thinking, which I found was the foundation of leadership development, teaching leaders and managers to think and work in patterns.
Something many leaders and organisations overlook, preferring to jump to solutions thinking they are being cleve


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Dave Hogg July 21, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Thanks Ben - that was helpful and strengthens the feeling that Toyota Kata thinking is coming to the surface again.  IE - Go slow until the routines are instinctive and reflexive and once in place let the problem-solving mind take off as you learn more.  Seems like systems thinking in action

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morgan fransson July 24, 2014
Ben - great article
Tps: Problem must be visualized. challenge the organization and let them try in like 8-step process to solve i


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Tom Shuker July 25, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Hi Ben,
I like your perspective regarding fast and slow. I encounter "We need to solve problems quickly" from people in my problem solving workshops all the time. Your thoughts give me something to relate back to them on practicing the methododlgy and speeding it up after one gets proficient in the thinking


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Ben Root July 25, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Hi Mark,

One thing I enjoy about this post is that I get to hear from old friends.  Nice to hear from you! 

“Going slow to go fast” 

In answer to your request, I will share one experience that I personally had during the beginning years at NUMMI.  I think it is pertinent to the “fast slow problem solving” as it directly relates to this at NUMMI.    

One of my early assignments was to study the way in which other companies were using Problem Solving Circles.  I was then challenged to try and bring these concepts and practices back to NUMMI where we would form our own form of problem solving circles.

I visited many plants that were using the circle program.  I read books and articles about problem solving circles and after about a year, I was raring to go.  As any good American Businessman, I wanted to be the best.  Not only did I want to have tons of circles active but I wanted them to be the best in California – if not the entire United States.  And I wanted to do it now! 

I was asked to make an A-3 report (a one-page report) to present to the Executive Management team at NUMMI.  Believe me, I was primed and ready.  It was time for my name to be in lights!  My big chance to shine! 

The presentation was conducted in a rather formal setting.  There were perhaps thirty members of the NUMMI, General Motors and Toyota management team.  When it was my turn to present, I started talking a mile a minute in a rather animated way, using all of my dynamic presentation style and the self assurance of a professional public speaker.  I was Mr. Entertainment.  But, about three minutes into my eloquent speech, the President of NUMMI stopped me.  I don’t know if any of you have been stopped right in the middle of a very important presentation but it was, to say the least, nerve racking!  I had not a clue of what was happening.  And then the president asked me, in front of the entire group, “Ben san, how old are you?”   How old am I?  Really?  In public? 

I quietly muttered forty -ish. 

With that he asked, Ben san, how long are you going to be at NUMMI?  I answered that I was not sure but at least for twenty more years.  And he said, “Ben san, you have twenty years to do this program”.

Wow!  Are you kidding me?  With his one comment it was like he had lifted a ton of bricks from my shoulder.  The time pressure was gone.  The need to be the best was gone.  What the president was looking for was my “process” for implementing the problem solving circle program.  He didn’t care if it took a while.  He knew that if I worked on the elements of the process and did it correctly, I would have a quality product in the end.  

So, I went back to the drawing board.  And I did work on the plan for several more months.  I communicated up and down and across NUMMI.  I corrected my plan, re-corrected my plan and replaced my plan.  But the lesson for me was this.  The final product was beautiful!  It launched quietly.  Everyone had been well informed and had bought into the concept of the problem solving circle program before I began implementation.  

From then on, I had to simply manage the steps of the process.  In the long run it was a very successful program but for me personally it was a turning point from “results” thinking to “process” thinking.  Maybe this could be interpreted as “work slowly on the process and the results will come quickly”.

Hope this helps!

Ben

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Mark Graban July 29, 2014
Great story, Ben

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