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We're working hard on problem solving so why don't I see any improvement in our problem-solving capability?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

We're working hard on problem solving, asking "why" repeatedly, and looking for root causes, but I'm afraid I fail to see any improvement of our problem-solving capability or why looking for hidden causes should help.

Intriguing question – sorry to have been so long in answering but I've been giving it much thought. Bear with me, I believe we need to explore more of the theory of problem solving.

A problem, I hope you'll agree, is a gap between where you are and where you'd like to be. You want things to be in a way they currently are not and find obstacles preventing it from happening. Formulating that gap and clarifying the nature of the obstacles is what turns a vague concern or issue into a problem that needs to be solved.

It turns out that this crucial part of the analysis is often overlooked, and people try to act on vaguely defined problems hoping the situation will change (which it sometimes does – better be lucky than good any day). The key issue for us here is first to describe the problem in terms of the desired outcome – this is where I would like to be, how I would like things to turn out, etc. – and the current situation, and then express it in terms of obstacles.

Now, all of this is clearly all in our minds: we want things to be this or that, we believe some actions will lead us closer to getting things how we want them, we recognize some obstacles, some breaks, and are blind to others. None of this is "real," it's all thinking stuff – and yet the resistance to getting what we want is very real – if it wasn't, there wouldn't be any problem in the first place. Let's examine the nature of this resistance: what makes reality so sticky?

Mind the Gap

Take a problem everyone faces to some extent or other: Why do you need to be so fortunate to balance lifestyle, financial success, and interesting work? And why is this balance constantly under pressure?

If you look around you, you'll find that most people you know almost always achieve one, often achieve two, and rarely achieve three out of three. Why? Because there are necessary trade-offs between these three constraints and the order in which you seek to address them matters.

If, for instance, you start by satisfying your desire for a good work/life balance, this will limit the kinds of jobs you can find – for instance, not working in a capital city – and chances are, unless you get lucky – that you will have to choose between financial compensation and a job that really captures your interest.

Or, if you choose to go for money first, you'll work towards a job in corporate finance, in a happening city, and then have to compromise between interesting and balanced. In both these examples, we can see that the shape of the solution will be very different according to the order in which the constraints are addressed, because of their in-built trade-offs.

From this perspective, a problem can be described as a gap between current and wished for, the obstacles in the way, and the underlying constraints that make these obstacles "real" in our minds.

Solving the problem involves discovering that these constraints might not be as real as one would think. There are three main strategies here:

  1. Pushing on a constraint to see how strong it is,
  2. Ignoring one constraint altogether and seeing where that gets you, 
  3. Discovering that the real underlying constraint is hidden somewhere else, and acting upon it.

problem solving in Action

Let's take a Gemba example. Imagine you run a project-based company, whether consulting or construction, you realize projects for clients. Because of the nature of the work, one part of these projects appears often and is subcontracted to a specialist firm.

During a gemba walk, you find out that one of the projects is late because the subcontractor is late – they simply haven’t staffed the number of people needed to do the job on time. Your own project team is very annoyed, blames its slippage on the subcontractor, and is in angry negotiation with the owner of the business.

Out of curiosity, you ask how many people would be needed to catch up and the answer is four. You ask your team to check in the paperwork how many people are employed by the subcontractor, and the answer is … four. The team doesn’t consider this to be a problem because it’s the subcontractor’s job to … subcontract. You realize by the way that your team assumes that the subcontractor will be better at managing his resource than they are at managing them.

Then the team tries to reassure you by explaining that since they’ve been putting pressure on the subcontractor, they have at least two people working on the task. This is half the four necessary to finish on time, but at least work is progressing. The problem-solving strategy that they are pursuing is the first, obvious one: push on one of the constraints of the problem and see whether it really is a constraint. Very often, no one has looked very hard and just giving it a closer inspection reveals that many constraints are only there on paper, not in reality.

Which is why the first step of lean problem solving, going to the gemba to see for yourself, can be so powerful (if you know what you’re looking for). Frequently, just looking harder into any problem, one will realize that the problem is other than what was stated and that apparently unalterable constraints are not so – they just demand closer attention.

You say fine, things are progressing, but we still won’t be able to finish on time for our customer, so what else can we do? The team then digs in saying that no matter how much pressure they put on the contractor and regardless of what promises the contractor makes, no more than one or two people show up instead of the four promised.

You ask the team to be more creative and find other ways to get the work done. Quickly, they suggest they could hire another contractor to do the job. Of course, they’d thought of it, but they don’t want to do that because of the costs this would induce. They hired the current one because he had a good reputation in the company and was the cheapest quote – they don’t want to let go of that cost advantage by hiring someone else in a hurry – now we see the second constraint, cost management. Also, they think that contractually this is going to be tricky, and they don’t want to damage the relationship with the existing contractor because they need quality work and don’t have time to delve into the legal issues of breaking the contract – third, maybe fourth constraint.

At this stage, you try the second strategy of problem solving: just ignore all other constraints, get a second guy in and make this work – forget cost, forget legal, make it work. The team then brainstorms all the way it could have to bring a second contractor and progressively starts looking into how to divide the job they’d farmed out into separate pieces, demanding different technicalities and admit, that, yes, there could be ways to bring someone else in cleanly – it would be work, but it could be done.

The second strategy to solve a problem is to ignore one of the secondary constraints, come up with an obvious solution, and then backtrack to make it work practically without too much damage on the constraint you ignored in the first place. This is how we tend to resolve the lifestyle/money/interest problem. We ignore one of the constraints, make choices accordingly, and then adapt where we get to in light of the third – and also which the balance is unstable because when one outside factor changes, the whole situation can change.

The leader is happy the team progresses but still puzzled. Why did they get into that situation in the first place? Surely, they could see they were taking a risk with this contractor since he had on paper just enough resources to do the job. Even considering that he knew how to double his own resource of four to eight by subcontracting himself, the numbers are still close – the team assumed (not thought it through in the actual case) that all (or even half), of the subcontractor’s people would be working exclusively for them at the time agreed to fit in their project.

So: why this guy?

- Because he’s affordable and has a good rep.

Why do we know that?

- Because we used him on other projects in the company.

At which stage it comes to light that the same contractor is also employed in another project of the company – and equally struggling with staffing. This is the third main problem-solving strategy: discover the real hidden constraint. In this specific gemba case, because of the technicity of the job, the rarity of affordable technicians, the companies project managers had shared among themselves the name of a “good guy” – and the company was unwittingly overloading him – thus creating the problem in the first place.

You start scratching your head about how to better manage a base of critical subcontractors to avoid getting caught in this situation – which, in learn terms, is about moving from managing causes (the specific instance) to managing conditions (the root causes, not the proximal causes).

Mental Discipline

The lean method of problem solving, which is essentially about going to see firsthand, clarifying the problem (what is the gap between current and actual), and asking why, and trying stuff, is based on the premise that practical countermeasures are a way to better understand the problem and progressively move from causes to conditions. In other words, rather than do discovery and then delivery, delivery (the countermeasure) is the key to discovery (Asking why? Looking for root causes). As with many other lean tools, lean problem-solving works if we keep in mind what we’re looking for – and what pitfalls to avoid.

problem solving is a dialogue with reality. We have (seemingly) clear ideas of what we want and what we don’t want, what is possible and what is not possible. These are ideas – they are rarely completely wrong, but they are also never quite right. problem solving is the mental discipline of formulating more clearly how we understand these constraints, and the causal model they represent (how the causes overlap and interact) as we test the constraints by trying stuff and see whether:

  1. The constraints are as solid as they seem;
  2. All the constraints are real or whether one can be ignored outright (and then mitigated);
  3. The real driving constraint is hidden and can be discovered.

With this in mind, looking harder and asking why can be directed and leveraged into a powerful problem-solving tool. Art Byrne is fond of remembering his sensei saying, “If you don’t try something, no new knowledge can visit you.”

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Edward Vogel September 11, 2018

I am sure glad to see there isn't a simple fifty word solution to this problem.  I think we are employing much of what you describe here but mainly "try stuff and learn".

Thanks!  I am forwarding this article and Lean Enterprise Institute in general to our culture team.

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