Understanding the Solution

Another great insight from “Toyota Kata” by Mike Rother.

We often think great problem solving means solving the problem, that is applying countermeasures, and we may even propose and apply several countermeasures in the hope that one of them will stop the problem. In contrast, in Toyota’s way of thinking, if the solution is not obvious, it means we have not yet understood the situation sufficiently. Time to go and see again.

So here I am, in the beginning stages of trying to figure out how to get this problem solving culture anchored – not in a single site, but in about a dozen – spanning at least 16 time zones, with six or seven languages involved. I have to keep the message very focused, direct, and simple. I have spent the last couple of months in “go and see” mode.

One of the things I am beginning to emphasize to these management teams is that their problem solving is typically far to broad in scope. They are trying to find general solutions to broad ranges of problems, like part shortages. But “Why do we have part shortages” is the wrong question. Asking that question requires studying a huge population of part shortages, and quickly entering into “Pareto paralysis.”

Jamie’s comment to the Pareto Paralysis” post was a good one. Pareto charts are a powerful analysis tool, but in my view, they are best used when breaking down which cause to work on, rather than trying to break down which problem to work on. There is a huge difference.

What I see is that teams spend too much time time deciding what problem is most important, to the detriment of actually spending time solving problems. But I digress.

Rather than spend a lot of time breaking down “part shortages,” how about taking one part shortage. Instead of asking “Why do we have part shortages” I want to know “Why was that part late today.?”

Taking a look at a single instance, rather than a whole class of problems, does a couple of things.

First, it lets the management team do something that is critically important in these beginning stages: They learn to dig in and gain solid understanding of the situation of a single problem. They have to look at how the process was supposed to work, and understand when, where and why it broke down. Frankly, until they can explain that to me, in detail, I am not the least bit interested in proposed solutions. They first have to teach me well enough that I can understand what they understand.

Going back to the quote, at that point, if the system level solution is not obvious, then it is likely that I don’t yet understand the situation. That means that they have not yet understood it enough to explain it to me, which means they need to go back and dig some more.

The other thing, though, is that the way to learn good problem solving is to:

  1. Start with single instances, rather than classes of problems.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.

Why is it important for senior leaders to get good at this kind of problem solving? After all, aren’t they paid to manage others to do this? Yup, they are. But until they have mastered the game, they are not good coaches.

What I need is senior leaders who are going to insist on the same level of understanding from their people. Leaders need to understand what questions to ask, and how to re-focus people from “We have too many part shortages” to “Why was that part late today?” If each person can teach two more how to think that way, we’ll get there pretty fast.

6 Replies to “Understanding the Solution”

  1. Perfect message.!!

    I’m dealing with this kind of thing right now. I have a team looking at customer returns. We have broken the returns down to root causes. But we don’t know which root cause to solve first. I think your correct. We need to just pick one. I’m sure solving one problem will help us solve some or most of the others.

  2. Outstanding post Mark. I love the distiction of using Pareto to determine which cause instead of which problem to work on. Frequently, I have seen attempts to fix things without ever having a Pareto of causes!

    Your post also touches on something I have been reflecting on a lot lately when you said “until they have mastered the game, they are not good coaches.” Leaders can not lead if they can not teach/coach.

    Thanks for your fantastic blog and sharing all of your great wisdom.

  3. Mark, interesting post. I’ve been having a little debate lately and wonder if you think everyone has the ability to be a good problem solver if just educated and forced to practice? Or are some personalities just not suited to be able to break down in depth details rather than just throwing countermeasures at the problem?

    1. Bryan –
      I think the only people who would have a hard time learning would be the ones who are unwilling to take the risk of making a mistake. But that is true of all learning.

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