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Hazards at the Huddle Board: Away From Fast Thinking, Toward Disciplined PDCA

by Doug Bartholomew & David Verble
September 9, 2015

Hazards at the Huddle Board: Away From Fast Thinking, Toward Disciplined PDCA

by Doug Bartholomew & David Verble
September 9, 2015 | Comments (12)

A key tenet of any lean transformation (and what ultimately makes an organization’s continuous improvement efforts more successful) is a robust culture of systematic problem-solving at every level. The problem-solving process, in effect, is the formalization of PDCA (plan-do-check-act) every day and everywhere, including the shop floor, care unit, or office. That is one of the secrets to Toyota’s success which many organizations are trying to replicate.

Despite the central role problem-solving plays in the success of any lean effort, many organizations struggle to achieve a discipline in their problem-solving. Ideally, workers follow a scientific method and discipline when identifying problems, finding their actual sources, and coming up witheffective solutions.

One increasingly popular method for engaging employees in regular problem-solving activity is the “huddle,” a daily, standup, peer-to-peer group discussion. Huddle discussions typically last about 5-10 minutes in front of a huddle board on which the group leader or team members list problems and ideas for improvements and the leader tracks activity and results.

Too often, though, problem-solving in the huddle tends to get fast-tracked in favor of quick identification of problems and acceptance of solutions. “The random picking of problems that people in the work flow see doesn’t necessarily add up to the needed improvements in overall results,” says David Verble, a lean practitioner and lead instructor for LEI’s new workshop Coaching Problem Solving in Huddles and Team Meetings.

For instance, if the primary business goals of a healthcare organization are patient care, patient safety, and safety of the staff, huddle leaders and coaches should be guiding participants toward identifying problems that affect those areas. Instead, however, huddles tend to target problems that are immediate the members’ concerns about perceived waste or unnecessary effort but seldom have direct links to performance in terms of those priorities.

Huddle Pitfalls

As more service and industrial companies use the popular huddle board approach for continuous improvement activity, team leaders and coaches need to be aware of the pitfalls involved, Verble warns. “Often what’s picked up as a problem may be a nuisance or an inconvenience. There is an attempt to make a general link between these problems and the priorities of the company. As a result, it is mostly luck if it actually makes a contribution to the overall performance of the work the people are involved in.”

In his lean work with many organizations, Verble has observed that the problem identification process begins when an employee posts an “improvement ticket” describing a problem condition, or points out a problem during the huddle.

Unfortunately, problem solving usually proceeds based on partial knowledge and assumptions, not verified facts. “Often there is little effort to explore the problem more deeply, to ask what the team knows more specifically about what is happening, and ask what should be happening in the way the work is done.  That’s what is needed to get a more precise and actionable description of the problem,” Verble says.

“There is a leap from problem recognition to solution without taking time to determine the real problem or its cause. This is not the kind of fact-based problem solving that Toyota demands for deciding countermeasures and proposing improvements,” adds Verble, a former manager of Human Resource Development for North American Manufacturing at Toyota’s Georgetown, KY plant and its manufacturing headquarters in Erlanger, KY.


He recommends that huddle leaders and coaches guide the group in a systematic approach to examining each problem members decide is worth following up. This includes finding out exactly when the problem occurs and under what conditions, including who has observed it and how often. For example, a huddle team may identify a selection of three or more problems, investigate their occurrences, and report back. Then the group can decide which problems warrant priority action.

“One approach is to let the team spend five minutes discussing each problem over a week’s time to come up with five problems,” Verble suggests. “Then they can prioritize them by talking about which is having the greatest effect on their performance before they start talking about what to do about them.”

A scientific approach should be followed to determine the cause of the condition. “After the team observes or gathers data to more precisely define the problem, they need to establish a sound cause and relationship, before deciding what needs to be changed,” Verble says. This involves identifying potential causes, narrowing to most likely causes and observing or doing Rapid Learning Experiments to find and confirm true cause. This gives huddle members a sound basis for deciding what actions need to be taken to change the situation, and what resources and approvals will be needed to effect the change.

This is a totally different approach to problem-solving than what Verble terms “a jump from an impression of a problem to a solution. It’s human nature for us to rush to a solution for a problem based on what we think we know,” he adds. “The brainstorming of ‘solutions’ in these meetings seldom gets at what’s really going on and what’s causing the problem.”

Ultimately, although the huddle or team participants come up with the problems and determine the actions needed to solve them, huddle leaders and coaches need to guide them along the disciplined PDCA problem solving path-- as opposed to the easier “fast track”-- to problem-solving, Verble believes. “Leaders and coaches have the primary role of slowing the rush to ‘fast thinking’ problem-solving through asking the right kind of questions about the right things at the right time,” he says.

Learn more with David Verble at “Coaching Problem Solving in Huddles and Team Meeting." See what you’ll learn and register.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  coaching,  collaboration
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12 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban September 09, 2015
2 People AGREE with this comment

Not all huddles are created the same!

I've seen some that are really engaging and are followed up with discplined PDSA and Kaizen activity.

I've seen others where people are just going through the motions (management told us to do huddles!) and staff are all staring at their shoes waiting for the huddle to be done.

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Tim Odokeychuk September 10, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply


I find that another needle on the barometer is the preparation levels of the team members for achieving an effective huddle.

(Respecting others' time!)

You can also easily determine a group's maturity through their statement about the situation.

Is it clearly emotional or reactive vs being well considered?

Pretty important for the Leader to recognise this before prioritising what the team should focus on.

Reply »

Steve Howell September 10, 2015

Would it be possible to share a couple real life examples that followed this approach? 

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D Verble September 10, 2015

Mark - I agree completely there is variation in the PDCA problem solving done by huddles and problem solving teams (wide variation, in fact.)   Two observations are behind my concern and are the reasons I developed the workshop through working with CI coordinators and coaches.   First, more often than not the problem solving I have observed in huddles is the jump to a solution based on a ill-defined first impression of a problem variety.  Second, where I do see sound PDCA problem solving based on grasp of the actual conditions and cause investigation it is in situations where the coaches and leaders ask questions to prompt the members to slow and avoid our human tendency to go from problem perception to an idea for a solution.  The purpose of the workshop I created is to help leaders and coaches develop those questioning skills and their "ear" for PDCA problem solving that is sound.  Thanks - David

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D Verble September 10, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Tim - I very much agree with your comments.  What I often see is team members competing for "air time" to propose their great ideas for solutions.  And seldom do they stop to consider each others' ideas and observations in their hurry to get their "good" ideas on the table and argue for them. This to me is an example of our tendency to jump to solution based on a lot of assumptions rather than a careful review (and maybe even go-see) of what is actually with the thing that has been observed and labeled a "problem." And I agree completely that it is the role of the leader or coach to slow down the "problem solving" with questions such as, "What do we know about exactly when, where and how often  (under what conditions) this happens. It is also the leader's role to facilitate the discussion and manage its flow to keep it productive.  Thanks for adding your observations.

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Tim Odokeychuk September 10, 2015

Thanks for expanding David.

The often seen short format of daily huddles can be a part driver of the airtime competition as you put it.

The danger could be that accepting and mobilising efforts to solve something that's based on a half-thought-through comment about an 'effect' might lead you to wasting energy on a situation that's really still in control.

Exactly what you've said about slowing down to factual discussion.

A good reference to this is Ohno's comments is that "Work is a competition of wits with subordinates".

Not to stifle improvement but to coach problem solving capability.

Great discussion...

Reply »

D Verble September 10, 2015

Steve - I think it would take more detail than this space allows to adequately describe a couple of examples.  But my email is dverble@lean-transform.com.  If you will ping me I will send you the pdf of a couple of "improvement tickets" from huddles I observed or that leaders shared that I use as examples in the workshop.  In both cases the problem descriptions were orginally accepted as is and the discussion when straight to solutions or fixes.  My concern is that both improvement opportunities may be actual performance-affecting problems but without considering what they know about what is actually happening the teams never got enough to the exact conditions to know if they were real problems.  Hope this is a reasonable substitute for descriptions of examples.  Thanks - David

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Steve Howell September 10, 2015

Dave - thank you and I will ping you.

BTW - I attended your "Coaching Skills for Lean Implementaion Leaders" a few years ago. I took away several things that have continuously helped me help others. So much still to learn...

I always look forward to your posts. Very helpful.


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D Verble September 10, 2015

Thank you, Steve.  The more I try to help others learn of this leading and coaching for lean/CI stuff the more I uncover that I have to learn.  That original coaching workshop has now grown to a sequence of four. David

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Theresa Coleman-Kaiser September 14, 2015

I find the distinction you make between a problem and a nuisance or inconvenience to be very important.  This is something I can use to mature our daily huddle process.  The advice to collect frequency data is a great one.  Thanks for inspiring us to improve a daily function that can easily get stale and out of sync with what we're trying to achieve.

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MJ June 15, 2019

I currently work for a very large well known company, who have implemented huddle boards to each of its complaints resolution teams. These boards shows each members name and there daily closure targets and phone call targets, my concern is that these targets go towards each staff members pay rise at the end of the year and feel that showing this personal information breaches their GDPR. I’m also concerned for staff who suffer from anxiety, depression or mental health problems, because I believe this could alleviate their condition knowing that offer staff on the floor can see whether they are meeting or failing their daily targets.

i raised my concerns to management and suggested that they removed individual names and instead list them as team member 1 remember 2 which meant that only the team and the manager knew the identity of the team members, management have come back to say they have amended their privacy policy to state that team names can be shown on huddle boards.

It would be nice to know what other people thoughts were on this, I understand the importance of huddles on teams and how it drives teams to reach higher goals, and is good for problem resolving, but is it good to place individual team names and stats on a board that everyone can see. 

I personally have disabilities which means I have to take daily medication to help me make it through the day, however the medication and lack of sleep can slow my memory and  take extra time for me to take things on board. So Knowing my STATS are on a large board for everyone to see really causes me extra anxiety which also doesn’t help with my current medical conditions.

Over the months I have heard staff on the floor making comments about other team STATS and individual STATS, and find it hard to understand why management cannot see that maybe this slight adjustment would help.

I would welcome fed back please, 





Reply »

David June 15, 2019

MJ - My understanding of the purpose of huddles is to engage employees in team performance improvement activities to solve shared problems in work method, work flow and information flow.  I have not heard of using huddle boards as a tool for performance management and promoting competition amont employees.  Under those conditions I find it hard to believe employees would feel psychologically safe to point out problems and offer ideas for improvement.  It sounds like an every-person-for-him/herself situation and I'm glad I'm not working in something like that.  If you Goggle Douglas McGregor or Theory X and Theory Y I think you will find that what you describe sounds that like the kind of traditional management thinking about employees that McGregor described as Theory X 60 years.  It certainly does not seem like the kind of respect for people that lean and employee engagement require in my experience.  Best wishes - David

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