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Solutions from Afar

5/12/2020
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A novel coronavirus is creating novel problems. Just opening a door now has complications. Essential businesses, open throughout the pandemic, have been tackling these problems for months. Those that are shuttered, however, have been limited to virtual problem-solving and uber-hypothesizing: “I imagine ‘X’ will be a problem. I believe ‘Y’ will solve it.”

Yet even before Covid-19, problem-solving away from the gemba — the actual place where value is created, where the work happens, where problems actually happen — was commonplace. In conference rooms, cross-functional “subject matter experts” (SME’s) would sit through perfect PowerPoint presentations where they were pitched clever “solutions” to various problems. After the SMEs chimed and the ritual of iteration was finished, the presenter would wrap-up by saying something like, “Now the real problem is getting them to implement it.” Heads would nod.  

Is it? Is that the real problem? 

gemba Don’t Lie

I read an article recently that got me thinking about this. It features an eight-page document with “dining room reopening mandates” and a hundred or so procedures. A corporate team had created it for their chain’s reopening restaurants in Georgia and Tennessee, two states trying to restart their economies amid the ongoing pandemic.

But a server in one of their restaurants is quoted as saying, “there’s no possible way for us to do what they’re asking us to do.” Adding, therefore “we’re not doing the social distancing thing.” This comment suggests, culturally speaking, that compliance with procedures from Corporate is what really matters.

The situation described in the article is hard to read about. While ad hoc problem-solving is happening in the restaurants—for example, the employees are scrambling to secure PPE—the corporate team does not seem aware of it. Therefore, they aren’t really supporting it. The folks in the restaurant are on their own, equipped with only an eight-page document and a hundred procedures.

The problem to solve, to avoid really, is customers and staff getting sick due to a lack of physical distancing and other preventative measures. The corporate team has given its solutions. The restaurant employees are focused on following them. Meanwhile, the server knows the real problem is going unaddressed. “We’re not doing the social distancing thing.”

To reopen safely and to restart the economy, we must do better.

Offering an Alternative

The Lean Global Network’s Lean-n-Food initiative has been active for several years. Its working group is comprised of business leaders and practitioners in the food industry, and hangers-on like me, who want lean thinking to guide the industry’s response to Covid-19. Recently, we came together to create something that could help folks in the industry use lean thinking to reinvent their businesses in response to Covid-19. (One member of the group, the Lean Farmer Ben Hartman, has already demonstrated how. You can read about that here.) Today, we published a "lean action plan" article simultaneously on Planet Lean and LEI’s The Lean Post: Reimagining Restaurants after Covid-19.

The article offers a core set of ideas that’s consistent with the Lean Transformation Framework. You can learn about that here. It starts with a value-driven purpose. And then, it provides a series of “lean actions”:

  1. Clarify the needs and desires of the customer and society-at-large. And keep updating your understanding often as the dynamic situation unfolds
  2. Design flow for customers, workers, and the food & drinks based on the new value-proposition which includes the need for physical distancing, sterilization of serving areas, and use of PPE
  3. Use standard work, including routine cleaning, and simple visual cues to keep everyone safe, physically and psychologically
  4. Build frequent problem solving, learning, and improvement into everyone’s job
  5. Minimize costs

You can read the full article here. While working on it, we were mindful of the trap that befell the restaurant chain. Could we create something that would help the folks working at the gemba solve their actual problems? We can’t say. Time will test our hypothesis.

One Last Thought

Speaking of problems to solve, how about we use this opportunity to close the gap between operations support staff, often including a lean/OPEX/continuous improvement team, and the folks doing the value-creating work. Rather than providing solutions, let’s try teaching the value creators how to solve problems practically at the gemba. And then, let’s support them with the encouragement and resources needed. This approach puts us on a path for emerging stronger

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