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Problems First and Positive Thinking

Michael Ballé
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Dear Gemba Coach,

Isn’t always focusing on problems discouraging? My people feel that they’d like to be recognized for their successes and resent the negativity of looking at the half-empty glass. Is there a positive way of doing lean?

“Problems first” is indeed the cornerstone of a lean culture. Lean is about achieving objectives THROUGH developing people. The lean method to develop people is to (1) help them develop autonomy in problem solving and (2) help them develop their own clear vision of where to take their areas of responsibility. Focusing on problems and hearing adverse information without blaming the messenger are the foundational attitudes of lean thinking: no ifs, no buts.

And there is a deeper reason for it. Our brains have evolved while roaming the African savanna and are designed to reach conclusions quickly: mistake rustling leaves for a sabre-tooth tiger and you get a good scare and an unnecessary run, but pause to confirm whether it is really a sabre-tooth tiger and you get eaten – and the “confirm impression before you act” genes are out of the gene pool. Similarly, we often follow leaders for their self-confidence and decisiveness, unfortunately not necessarily their ability to get it right. In a modern hyper-complex world, where cause and effect and subtle and impacts long-term, flourishing is about being right rather than being quick – even if it takes a little longer. The key to lean thinking is the scientific method: making the effort to confirm before committing to a course of action. Hence looking at problems.

Is this negative? Sure, back at the Gemba, it can be perceived as such. I can think of one industrial company I know where every time I see them it’s all about problems, problems, problems: they can’t ever seem to get right what they attempt to do, and something else always happens (supplier goes bust, new product has issues, bottleneck machine goes down, people are upset). But over the years, they have set up a pull system, worked hard on improving quality and transformed workstations with their operators and, well, their performance has improved significantly (which justifies selling their products at premium price). There is a disconnect because problems are what they experience every day, and performance improvement creeps up at monthly or quarterly timeframe. Nothing fails like success, however, so they get so good that they get sold by their corporate owner for an outrageous amount. The new owners move in, fire the CEO, and, as per usual, integrate the company by imposing their own procedures, their own lean program and so on.

“Damn, we used to have fun!” complained the purchasing manager last time I saw them. The comment surprised me because I felt that previously they were struggling and constantly finding things difficult – over years. Fun? That was a new notion. But they all agreed. They used to have fun doing lean. Now they were back five years down the path to cost cutting and arbitrary corporate rules and it was definitely not fun anymore – although no one challenged them on their problems. In this new environment, they were back to “shoot the messenger” and were re-learning to toe the line and keep their noses clean. So what was fun with “Problems First”?


I asked them about it, and they felt they were trying to do fun things. And it’s true we did laugh about it. A trivial example was the challenge to keep the backyard absolutely free of anything – empty. Every time, something showed up. Mostly, it was the result of reducing inventory, closing warehouses, improving supplier delivery and so on. Every one of these challenges created new problems. Nothing ever worked right first time, and problems cropped up all over. But these problems were the result of actively trying to move the company forward by taking on a new challenge. These were not passive problems, but the expected outcomes of taking a step further. The new management cost control rules restricted most of the experiments they were attempting and took away both challenge and performance improvement. Problems were still there (something always happens), but it wasn’t fun anymore.

Challenge is one of the core lean management themes, along with teamwork, and open mind, expressed by Pascal Dennis is his great lean novel Andy and Me. 

Open Mind

Lean focuses on problems because (1) you set yourself a target, say an hourly production objective according to (2) a process you try to run and 3) you look at problems to better understand your process. As John Shook explains in his latest e-letter: what are you trying to achieve? Why can’t you? Production losses every hour will show what is wrong with the existing process, and how to improve it. Looking at problems is not self-punishment or wringing of hands, it’s in fact cultivating an open mind. Furthermore, particularly in industrial, problems WILL happen whether you want to or not. Suppliers will do weird things. Machines will go down. People will stay home with the flu or be in a bad mood, or come up with … who knows what? So accepting that problems will occur actually makes you feel better. I have now accepted that taking a train in France WILL mean at least a 15-minute delay for every trip. This is not fate, and this is not about keeping me from reaching my appointment on time. It’s simply a reflection of the capability of the train company. So rather than fuming every time I’m stuck on the track somewhere, I think to myself: “Ah, here are five minutes gone. I wonder when the next ten minutes will occur.” Strangely, accepting that problems WILL occur and that problems are an INTERESTING reflection of the process develops equanimity, open mind, and yes, a form of positivity. Looking at problems encourages developing an open mind because we’re forced to admit that reality doesn’t tolerate our best ideas so well, and that problems demonstrate that we need to understand more fully what really happens – and accept often that others where right from the start, even though their conclusions can be disputed.


As the discussion about “we used to have fun” continued, they also realized they no longer worked together as they used to. They still got on fine individually, but no longer had the team problem solving sessions where production, purchasing, procurement, logistics, and quality actually put their heads together to solve their challenges. They missed both the comradeship of being at the front together and the seeing the BIG PICTURE as they exchanged each others’ perspectives on the business.

As I listened to them, I realized they missed their CEO. He’d never been a very operational guy and his interest at the Gemba had been limited to visiting the kaizen workshops and discussing with the operators – his vision was that of a learning organization. By and large he let his directors get on with their work and didn’t involve himself much in operational decisions. On the other hand, he’d been brilliant at seeing clearly the wider challenges, bringing an unstinting positive attitude to the business (if we work together we’ll solve every problem). Not being focused on nitty-gritty, he was never in a rush to get things done, but he encouraged a permanent spirit of open discussion and teamwork. He’d also made a point of sharing the rewards of improvement and had instigated an extensive program of profit sharing. Far from the caveman leadership of “follow me because I’m right or die,” this CEO was a leader because everyone in the company felt that things got better precisely because they were tackling their problems and taking the time to do it right, even thought that meant quite a bit of trial and error.

At the Gemba, whether people perceive “problems first” as negative or positive is a question of leadership. If there is no genuine attempt from the top at solving greater challenges, if nothing ever gets better, if people feel they’ll be blamed for whistleblowing, surely getting them to focus on problems will be seen as negative. But if they can see performance improve steadily, they personally benefit from it, and it is accepted that THERE WILL BE PROBLEMS and NO ONE WILL BE BLAMED, but that EVERY PROBLEM IS INTERESTING, then problems first can instead become a source of positive feelings at the workplace. It develops the self-confidence that challenges can be taken up and problems resolved autonomously (rather than wait for city hall to fix everything). It develops the open mind to see that when things don’t work out the way they want to because of technical specific reasons, not because others are incompetents out to get you. And finally, it develops the great feeling of working as a team and seeing how we connect to each other’s jobs and how our own technical decisions create issues in our colleagues’ work, and how to solve that.

In the end, I can only answer your question by another question: what kind of a leader do you want to be? A true test of lean leadership is when people start feeling positive about highlighting problems and tackling them with their colleagues, looking for innovative solutions to today’s problems. But this attitude, certainly, will not happen in a vacuum and needs to be led from the top on the Gemba, every day.

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