How Do You Look At Problems?

A couple of posts ago, I tried to emphasize “hypothesis testing” as the key, core thinking behind the TPS. For that matter, I think that anyone who truly understands any of the various improvement approaches out there will find the same thinking at the core. Certainly Six Sigma; Theory of Constraints; and TQM are all about surfacing and solving problems. They may use different language, might insert the initial lever between different bricks, but in the end, the approaches all embrace the same basic thinking.

I’d like to put out there an idea that it is the way problems are regarded and approached that separates “gets it” from “business as usual.”

What Constitutes “a problem?”

In “traditional thinking” a problem is something which disrupts output. It is something serious enough that it cannot be ignored.

In a true continuous improvement mindset, anything that causes variation from the plan, in any way, is “a problem.” Any barrier between the current condition and the idealized world is “a problem.”

What triggers a response?

In “traditional thinking” if output isn’t disrupted, spend time elsewhere. There is a caveat to this, however. The parable of the “boiling frog” (whether true for actual frogs or not) can drive an ever higher level of numbness as “normalized deviance”   sets in.

Since continuous improvement is a process of discovering the ideal process, variation from the plan is new information. It must be investigated and understood. If everything is running smoothly, then the problem solving shifts to the next barrier to higher performance.

What triggers alarm in the organization?

This one may be the most controversial. While “stopped production” is certainly cause for alarm and immediate response, in the traditional thinking world, it is the only thing that really gets people’s attention.

In a thinking and learning organization, I would add to the above “No problems are apparent.” If there are no andons, there are no defects, there are no line stops, there are no shortages, there are no disruptions, then there is a BIG problem. I say that because these conditions are impossible and it is only because your system is totally numb that you would not see them.

Target Condition

Given the above, then I think it is safe to offer that silence is equated with “stability” in the traditionally reacting organization. Of course it isn’t stable at all, it is just that there is so much systemic anesthesia that nobody feels anything.

In the continuous improvement mindset, things are running as they should if there is a continuous flow of problem being surfaced and solved. That is the only way to be 100% certain that things are getting better every day.

“Management Commitment”

The term “management commitment” is tossed around as a prime reason for failure of improvement initiatives. There are lots of good reasons for this, but until we really define exactly what leaders need to do every day, stop using euphemisms, and start getting real about leadership’s actual role in this process, we are crutching the problem. This is partly “our fault” because we teach the basics very badly. We put top leaders into “kaizen events” but never explicitly link kaizen to daily problem solving. In doing so, we convince them that if only they support enough kaizen events, the organization will be transformed. The logical result is a monthly report on how many kaizen events have been run. Argh.

If we used kaizen events to explicitly teach the core questions, the rules of good process design, and the concept of applying PDCA to everything, we might get more traction. That can be difficult, but maybe if everyone in the industry starts thinking in terms of a few core mantras we might get a chorus going.

4 thoughts on “How Do You Look At Problems?

  1. What are “the rules of good process design”? My company tries to throw lean tools (such as hour by hour) at a process which has never been “leaned” out in the first place, so we are constantly trying to react to this very non-transparent process. I would like management to adopt some basic lean principles and insert them into our culture. What basic lean principles or core beliefs, if adopted, might steer management and a company to a culture shift?

    1. Hi Mark –
      Welcome, and thanks for commenting.
      Good question.
      By coincidence we have a decent discussion going on this topic in the forum here:

      You might also want to check out Toyota Kata by Mike Rother.
      I put up a review of it here:

      There are also follow-up posts on the topic as I learned more from trying it myself, from interacting with readers here, and from correspondence and conversation with the author.

      Consider this a personal invitation to jump in to the conversation on the forum – you get branded as a “Charter Member” if you do 🙂 and see what we can do as a group to develop a good answer to your question.

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