Dear Gemba Coach,
I keep reading that lean is about solving problems. But that’s exactly what I already do in my job. So how is lean different?
That’s a very good question. To explore this issue more deeply, let’s start by clarifying exactly what we mean by “problems.” Let’s distinguish four specific types of problem solving: (1) the workaround, (2) the immediate countermeasure, (3) structured problem solving and root cause analysis, and (4) the kaizen initiative. The distinction I am making here is somewhat arbitrary as there are other problem-solving situations, as well as overlap between these categories, but let’s use it now, for argument’s sake, to try and clarify the question.
The workaround is what we tend to do intuitively when something goes wrong. We don’t want to solve the problem; we just want it to go away. So we look for the simplest way we can go back to our “normal’ work. We harvest a missing part from one machine to compensate for a missing part in stock, for example, which does not solve the problem but does postpone it. The overhauled equipment will be immobilized until the replacement part arrives, but this part may arrive before any damage is done, so no one is wiser. Workaround works as the “garbage can” model of decision-making. Problems are represented as garbage cans that land on your desk. You chuck into them the obvious solutions that come to your mind, and this eventually makes the problem disappear (the can vanishes). If you can’t find the right “solution,”you can then toss the garbage can on your neighbor’s desk, who will then try the same thing. In the lean perspective this is not problem solving. So: what is problem solving in the lean context?
Lean defines a problem as a gap to a standard – a discrepancy between the way things should be running and the way that they are. To have problems, you need standards. Otherwise you have concerns or issues, but not problems. Standards are clear descriptions of good working conditions, which enable gaps to be immediately identified and thus addressed. These types of responses are immediate countermeasures. For instance, the warehouse holding the parts will have clear visual controls that clearly indicate that the components that should be there are actually there. If a slot is empty, workers can call for the part before it is needed for an urgent repair. This is what lean calls an immediate countermeasure. The lean manager does not wait for problems to explode in her face because she is constantly worrying about whether her operations are in “normal conditions.” This means work that follows standard processes, which orients her to looking for gaps and reacting immediately when seeing that something is not right. Safety problems highlight this very clearly. It is easier to monitor whether someone is wearing a seatbelt, or not drinking before getting behind the wheel, than it is to try and take the steering wheel out of their hands to avoid a fatal crash. Yet, this requires (1) a precise understanding of what it means to drive safely and (2) the personal ability (self confidence, political clout, etc.) to face the person when they tell you that they don’t need to wear the belt just for a couple of miles, that they only had a few glasses and will be fine, or that keeping to the speed limit makes them drowsy.
Immediate countermeasures should be standardized as well. As you deal with problems you will encounter common issues that appear frequently and which can be addressed with common responses. For instance, a customer quality complaint can trigger the standard response of immediately installing a 100% check at the end of the process. Remember that the goal of immediate countermeasures is to (1) protect the customer and (2) return to normal conditions. The great difficulty is to resist the workaround under pressure. Clearly something needs to be done in a hurry, but it is also important to follow procedures. Only high-risk and unique circumstances should trigger a “red alert” awareness with a quick workaround. Yet workarounds should never be considered normal or acceptable: they are the occasion for “all hands on deck and battle stations,” and employees should be especially on the lookout for unexpected consequences.
Root Cause Analysis
The next set of situations warrants a deeper kind of problem solving. These are the situations that can’t be fixed easily, which cannot return to normal conditions quickly. One example is a work condition that frequently deviates from the standard. The problem repeats itself often, and while workers know a countermeasure, actually using it disrupts work. This would include using special freight to get parts from the supplier when they’re not in stock. We know how to use these urgent transport means, which let us live through the problem but they are costly and disruptive. And they are not the proper action, which is to investigate the causes of recurring out-of-stock parts.
Such situations warrant a deeper kind of problem solving: one that strives to identify the root cause of the problem in order to enact the right solution and avoid the usual blundering of trying one thing after another until we stumble on a satisfying compromise. Problem solving of this nature is above all a test of leadership. So when you are confronted with this process ask yourself who has the leadership ability to conduct the analysis to the end and follow the method smartly as well as engaging the other stakeholders.
This structured approach to problem solving has been clearly explained by John Shook in Managing to Learn and by Art Smalley and Durward Sobek in Understanding A3 Thinking. I urge people to read both these terrific books. Essentially, it comes down to following the PDCA approach through eight steps:
- Clarify the problem
- Grasp the situation
- Set a target
- Analyze the root cause
- Develop countermeasures
- See countermeasures through
- Evaluate both results and process
- Standardize successful processes
Finally, there is kaizen. Kaizen is about improving processes even when there are no fires to put out. Because no process can ever be considered perfect, there are always opportunities to learn and improve through careful analysis and experimentation. Kaizen exercises train the process owner to understand his or her operations better by tackling a particular problem. There are several standardized kaizen methods that include 5S, one-piece-flow, TPM, SMED, value-stream mapping, and more. These are standard analysis method one can use on any process to understand it better and unearth opportunities for improvement. One can then quickly try solutions until the performance and the process is improved. Kaizen is first and foremost a tool to teach managers to run their processes more effectively and to listen to the idea of their employees.
I hope you’ll see that these last three approaches – immediate countermeasure to return to standard, root cause problem solving, and kaizen – are significantly different from a simple workaround. The rigor and discipline of these problem-solving approaches are essential to lean. Lean leaders must master the process of problem solving. Recently, a CEO of a midsize company who is driving a lean transformation through his business told me that he was facing a challenge. He was arguing with his top management team. The CEO was struggling to explain to his top managers that he expected his middle management team to improve their processes, not to simply keep them running on a daily basis. Making processes run was the job of frontline management, not mid-level managers. And mentoring middle managers so that they understood this was the job of senior managers. In order to improve processes, the leaders needed to teach middle managers how to solve problems rather than invent workarounds for their subordinates. In actual practice this is a radical change of the professional culture. Ask yourself: is this really what you do when you solve problems at your company?