Systematic Problem Solving

If I were to look at the experience of the organization profiled in the last three posts “A Systematic Approach to Part Shortages” I believe their biggest breakthrough was cultural. By applying the “morning market” as a process of managing problems, they began a shift from a reactive organization to a problem solving culture.

I can cite two other data points which suggest that when an organization starts managing problem solving in a systematic way, their performance begins to steadily improve. Even managing problem solving a little bit better results in much more consistent improvement and less backsliding. Of course my personal experience is only anecdotal. That is certainly true by the time you read it here as I try to filter things. But consider this: The key difference with Toyota’s approach that Steven Spear pointed out in “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” (as well as his PhD dissertation) was that the application of rules of flow triggered problem solving activity whenever there was a gap between expected and actual process or expected and actual outcome.

Does this mean you should go out and implement morning market’s everywhere? Again, based on my single company data point, no. That doesn’t work any more than attaching kanban cards to all of your parts and calling it a pull system. It is not about the white boards, it is not even about reviewing the problems every day. Reactive organizations do that too. In most cases in the Big Company that implemented morning markets everywhere, that is what happened – they morphed into another format for the Same Old Stuff.

Here are some of the things my example organization did that I think contributed to success in their cultural shift.

  • They separated “containment” and “countermeasure” as two separate and distinct responses. This was to make sure that they all understood “containment” is what is done immediately to re-start production while preserving safety and quality. “Containment” was not a countermeasure as it rarely (if ever) actually addressed the root cause. It only isolated the effect of the problem as far upstream as possible. The rule of thumb was simple:
    • Containment nearly always adds time, cost, resources, etc.
    • A true countermeasure nearly always removes not only the containment, but reduces time, cost, resources.
  • They didn’t use the meetings to discuss solutions. They only addressed two things:
    • A quick update on the status of ongoing problem solving.
    • A quick overview of new problems from yesterday.

I think this is an important point because too many meetings get bogged down with people talking about problems, and speculating what the causes are. That is completely non-productive.

  • The actual people working on problems attended the meeting. I cannot over-emphasize how important this is. They did not send a single representative. Each person with expected activity reported his or her progress over the last 24 hours. It is difficult to stand in front of a group and say “I didn’t do anything.”
  • They blocked out time to work on problems. I probably should have put this one first. The manufacturing engineers and other professional problem solvers agreed not to schedule anything else for at least two hours every morning. This time was dedicated to working on the shop floor to understand the problem, and physically experiment with solutions. There was a lot of resistance to this. But over a couple of months it became close to the norm. It helped a lot because it started to drive the group to consider where they really spent their time vs. what they needed to get done. There was no doubt in the past that solving these problems was important, but it was never urgent. Nobody was ever asked why they weren’t working on a shop floor issue. That had been a “when I am done with everything else activity.” Gradually the group developed a stronger sense of the shop floor as their customer.
  • They didn’t assign problems until someone was available to work on them. This came a little later, when the problem-solvers were missing deadlines. The practice had been to assign a responsible person in the morning when the problem was first reviewed. Realistically a person can work on one problem a time, and perhaps work on another when waiting for something. They established a priority list. The priority was set primarily by manufacturing. When a problem-solver became available, the next item on the list was assigned. Once a problem was assigned, nothing would over-ride that assignment except a safety issue or a defect that had actually escaped the plant and reached a customer.
  • They got everyone formal training on problem solving with heavy emphasis on true root cause. People were expected to follow the method.
  • A problem was not cleared from the board until a long term countermeasure had been implemented and verified as working.

By blocking out time, they were able to establish some kind of expectation for productivity. After that, if problems were accumulating faster than they were being cleared, they knew they had a methods or resource issue. The same was true for their other tasks which were worked on during the rest of the day.

This was the start of establishing a form of standard work for the problem solvers.

21 Oct 08 – There is more on the subject here and here

5 Replies to “Systematic Problem Solving”

  1. I have had the morning market approach fail completely. The root cause is a lack of systematic problem solving skill. Just as you shouldn’t implement an andon until after you design the system to respond, don’t create a morning market until people know, understand and are able to actually do systematic problem solving.

    What is systematic problem solving? If there is no standard work for problem solving it will not be systematic. With no standard work, it will depend on individual abilities and motivation, and it will vary significantly. With high variation it can’t be managed and it can’t be iimproved.

    Start of with PDCA and 5Whys. And get started soon because it will take a long time.

  2. The group in the story had the same problem. As they started assigning problems, they realized that even the “professional problem solvers” lacked a systematic approach to go about it.

    Their response was really cool. They applied PDCA – maybe without realizing it. Since the leadership and a couple of key managers were very committed to making the morning market concept work as a matter of principle, they took a look at what was keeping it from working (lack of problem solving skills), and addressed it. They organized a problem solving / troubleshooting course for the manufacturing engineers and key managers and supervisors.

    But beyond taking the class, since they had done it more or less as a group, everyone was grounded at the same time. They challenged each other to follow the process. When someone wasn’t, they asked the questions posed by the method in the course, and got each other on track. The morning market sessions were powerful for this because they were a public, and daily, “CHECK” on following the agreed-upon method.

    This clearly doesn’t work everywhere, but in this case it did, and it made a huge difference in the organization’s overall performance.

  3. Thanks for the info. on systematic problem solving. After reading the article, i have realized the importance of follow-up- as prescribed in the P-D-C-A cycle. Many of our problem solving attempts have been aborting simply because we have never gone past the Do part in the cycle! Thanks once more.


    Cyrus Karanja,

    Process Improvement Leader,
    Nampak (K) Limited,
    Kenya, East Africa.

  4. Hi ,
    i have a question ,i need your advise on which lean methodology we should apply for going on lean direction in an industry which does only prototype manufacturing.

    your inputs would be appreciated.


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