At its core, much of continuous improvement is about problem solving. Tools such as Standard Work, policy deployment, kanbans, and andons are all really just pre-packaged solutions to common problems.
Despite that focus on resolving issues, few people have well-developed problem solving skills. This holds true even in companies that have been on their Lean journey for an extended period. The list below shows a ‘big picture’ view of problem solving, and ways to improve in each area.
- Commitment: Commit to improving the operation.
- Identification: Learn to identify problems.
- Process: Choose and use a problem solving methodology each and every time.
- Tools: Practice using a variety of problem solving tools to support the system.
- Teamwork: Engage all the people involved in problem solving efforts.
- Follow-up: Make sure the solutions stick.
The hardest part of getting better, by a longshot, is developing the commitment to improve. Think about fitness and weight loss. There is no magic formula. Eat less. Choose healthier foods. Exercise more. Yet despite its simplicity, in 2009, 63.1% of Americans were either overweight or obese (Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index).
The same holds true in Lean. The majority of companies that try to implement Lean fall short in their efforts. Calculating the ‘Lean Success Rate’ is a challenge, since most people don’t even agree on a definition of Lean, and because most data is self-reported. But it is clear that even though Lean typically delivers at least some improvement, companies expect more. That gap is likely in large part due to a lack of universal commitment.
Policy deployment is a great tool to create buy-in at top levels of the company. The truth is, the higher-ups in a company tend to be more vested in corporate success than frontline employees. Executives tend to get bonuses, and are often focused on promotions. Linking their personal success to that of the company through PD makes what’s good for the company and what’s good for the individual one and the same. Committed leaders who ‘walk the talk’ tend to inspire their teams.
Even with commitment, identifying problems can be a challenge. Let’s assume that a company wants to get better, but doesn’t realize that producing in batches is actually hindering their operation. This is a classic case of not knowing what you don’t know. Obviously, education plays a big role in this. Creating a regular learning plan helps.
But there is more to it. People have to want to air dirty laundry. If people feel scared to voice concerns or highlight problems, then success will be out of reach. Creating a daily management system that compares expectations to reality can provides a structure where any deviations from the plan must be addressed. The systematic nature of the review very quickly removes the aversion to addressing problems publicly.
Eventually, this constant focus on identifying problems creates a culture where problem solving becomes second nature, almost like the actions that go into driving a car. People seldom actively think to check their rear-view mirrors when piloting an automobile. It happens reflexively. The ultimate continuous improvement organization has that same immediate response to problems.
Surprisingly few people actually go step-by-step through a process when they are solving problems. As a result, they end up missing the mark and have to deal with the same issue over and over and over.
Note that most problem solving processes follow a similar path. In most cases, it doesn’t matter much which methodology you choose, so long as you actually choose one. And, of course, follow it.
In woodworking, a carpenter has a variety of tools he or she can choose from depending upon the precise needs of the job. The more tools he has, and the more knowledge he has on how to use them, the better the finished product will be.
The same is true for problem solving. The better equipped one is, the more effective and lasting a solution will be. Some examples of problem solving tools include Pareto charts, run charts, brainstorming methods and the like.
With the growing complexity of business, problems are seldom isolated to one area. That means solving them requires a greater level of communication, cooperation, and teamwork than ever. Creating lasting solutions requires alignment in goals. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) cascaded down through policy deployment act to keep everyone on the same sheet of music.
Change is extremely hard. And many new processes take time to work out all the bugs. There is a high risk period of time right after a change is made where the challenges of the new processes combined with the comfort of the old draw people backwards. Follow-up is crucial to keep teams from backsliding.
Plan audits after a project. But don’t just have the leadership team check on things. People involved with the problem solving project should conduct the audits with coaching from their leaders.
This article originally appeared in the Gotta Go Lean blog on February 1, 2011.