6 Ways to Improve Problem Solving in Your Company

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.

  1. Commitment: Commit to improving the operation.
  2. 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.

  3. Identification: Learn to identify problems.
  4. 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.

  5. Process: Choose and use a problem solving methodology each and every time.
  6. 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.

  7. Tools: Practice using a variety of problem solving tools to support the system.
  8. 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.

  9. Teamwork: Engage all the people involved in problem solving efforts.
  10. 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.

  11. Follow-up: Make sure the solutions stick.
  12. 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.

9 Responses to 6 Ways to Improve Problem Solving in Your Company

  1. Doris Shong February 2, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

    Please provide more understanding on these terms:
    1) The difference between “Continuous” Improvement and “Continual” Improvement.
    2) The difference between “Goals” & “Key Performance Indicators”.
    Thank you!

  2. Jeff Hajek February 2, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    Hi Doris,

    Thanks for the questions.

    I don’t see a functional difference between continuous and continual improvement. There may be subtle nuances to the words, but in practice, the goal is to just keep making things better. You might find some sticklers out there, but I have yet to see a benefit from making a distinction between the two. Continuous improvement is in much more common use, though, which is why I chose it for my company’s name.

    As far as the second question, Key Performance Indicators are a specific type of goal. They are the measurables that cascade down an organization, usually through policy deployment. Theoretically, if a company is hitting all its KPIs, the strategy is on track.

    There is a related bit of discussion about how goals, targets, and objectives all relate. There’s really no definitive answer on it. I try not to get wrapped up too much in debates over meanings. I just recommend that your organization defines how they are going to measure the business, regardless of how it is labelled.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. venkat February 2, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    how to improve the production in steel fabrication industry..

    • Jeff Hajek March 15, 2012 at 5:43 am #


      Please see my response to Gbola. The short of it is that the basic principles of continuous improvement work anywhere. It just requires the desire to get better to fuel experimentation. Fortunately, there are plenty of mentors you can find, and a wealth of information available.

      Good luck,

  4. Gbola Makinde February 4, 2012 at 5:20 am #

    I appreciate your discussion on this and I want to be permanently associated with you to gain from a reservoir of your knowledge on this topic.

    My question now: How do we develop KPIs? Is there any specific tools required to do this? How do we test the viability of the KPIs for the desired improvement?
    Can improvement be limited to structures/resources with definite size and processes?
    What are the meanings of Kanbans and andons?
    How to improve production in fertilizer industry.
    Grateful for your answers.

    • Jeff Hajek March 15, 2012 at 5:41 am #

      Hi Gbola,

      Sorry about the delay. I actually have an online resource guide at http://www.LeanDictionary.com that contains entries and downloadable PDFs that can answer those questions about the meaning of the terms. As far as the fertilizer industry, the Lean philosophy will work regardless of what you produce. I would start with trying to identify waste, and apply 5S principles to start reducing it if you are going to try it on your own. More importantly, I recommend finding a mentor that can help you learn more quickly.

      Good luck.

  5. jafar February 5, 2012 at 2:55 am #


  6. Doris Shong March 15, 2012 at 2:31 am #

    Thanks Jeff – For the reply.
    One can of course “Googled” for the appropriate meanings. But I just want a calibration from you on the definition as an expert in your article. I enjoyed reading your article as it gives some insights to our thoughts.
    You used the term “continuous” at the beginning of your text, and the term “KPI”.
    I would perhaps give my two cents worth of thoughts to the meaning:
    There is a slight difference between “continual” and “continuous” with regards to making improvements.
    Continual – Any organization may make improvements, but should have some stop gaps in between to review if they are making the right kind of improvements. The stop gaps are for reviews to ensure they are going at the right directions against goals and current market conditions.
    Continuous – Just go on continuously without stopping for reviews. An improvement effort may be hitting at the wrong target.
    KPIs are measurable objective set against the company’s business goals.

    Your comments are welcome for my continual learning. Thanks!

    • Jeff Hajek March 15, 2012 at 5:53 am #


      I don’t, in any way, see using the term continuous as not stopping to check progress. The definitions of the two words are 1)happening without interruption or cessation and 2)uninterrupted in time; without cessation. Off the top of you head, can you tell me which is for continual and which is for continuous? I’d be careful about trying to re-coin a term that is in common use. Hundreds of thousands of people search for continuous improvement each month. You are implying that they are applying improvement principles wrong.
      That said, I do agree with the underlying point, though. Make sure you are fully applying the PDCA cycle during the continuous improvement process.

      As far as the KPIs, again, there is really no consensus on how to apply the words ‘goal’, ‘objectives’, ‘targets’, etc. Just keep in mind the point–measure progress against a predetermined end, and adjust as needed. KPIs, though, are generally accepted as a specific type of goal/objective/target, in which the measure is against a process, not a result. The term indicator implies that if tells you something in advance of the actual results.

      Thanks for the comments.