Who’s Your Coach?

In a few weeks, the best athletes in the world will assemble in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Just being there means these individuals are performing at a level that the rest of us can only watch and appreciate.

Each of these world-class top performers has a coach.

Ironically, their coaches are not capable of performing at the same level as the athletes themselves. If they could, they would be competing, not coaching.

To be sure, some of the coaches are former world-class athletes. But most of them are “just” world class coaches. They have the skill to watch the athlete perform, to compare what they observe against a standard of perfection and to see very subtle things which might make a difference in the athlete’s performance.

World class athletes all know they only perform at a world class level because they have world class coaches. It is the coach who takes them from “very good” to “Olympic contender.”

A coaches credibility is based on his ability to observe and teach. His success is built on the success of the people he coaches.

For business leaders:
Do you believe you can perform at a world-class level on your own?
Is your insight into your own performance good enough to pick up nuance and detail that could make a huge difference?
Do you believe that, because you have more experience, that no one below your level could teach you anything?
Do you believe that, because you have been successful, only someone who has had more personal success could teach you anything?
Do you measure “competence” by hierarchy level?

Who is your coach?

Anchoring a Problem Solving Culture

More than a few organizations I know are starting to understand the importance of establishing a culture of problem solving. Hopefully they are shifting from a tools implementation model to one which emphasizes how people respond to the daily friction generators.

In an email on the topic to a friend today, I cited four things that I think need to be there before this can be achieved. Upon reflection, I’d like to expand upon and share them. I think I can say that a lot of the failures I have seen can be traced back to only emphasizing one or two of them.

The organization must reset its definition of “a problem.”

I started to get at this mindset back in January with the post “Chatter as Signal.”

In “traditional” organizations something is labeled “a problem” when it causes enough disruption (or annoys the right (wrong?) person). Anything that does not cross that threshold is tolerated. The “problem” with this approach is that many small issues are ignored and worked around. Their effects, though, tend to clump and cluster into larger cumulative symptoms. When those symptoms reach the threshold of pain, someone starts wanting some kind of action, but by now it is too late for simple solutions.

Another face of the same thinking is the “big problem” syndrome. “We can’t fix everything.” “We have to prioritize on the big hitters.” True enough, but it is not necessary to fix everything at once. That’s the point. Sure, prioritize the technically tough problems. But, at the same time, put the systems into place that allow everyone to work on the little ones, every day.

When the “big problem” statements are used as a “can’t do it” or “we can never be perfect” excuse, the organization’s underlying mindset has dropped into the ”

The “Chatter as Signal” attitude really means instead of putting together plans and processes and then tossing them over a wall for blind execution, the problem solving organization systematically and continuously checks “reality” (what really happens) against their “theory” (the plan, what they expect to happen). Whenever there is a difference between the two, they look at that as “a problem.”

Maybe the term “problem” is unfortunate.

A lot is made out there about being truly forward-looking organizations seeing “mistakes” as opportunities to learn. A “mistake” is nothing other than an instance of “We did this thinking some specific thing would happen, but something unexpected happened instead.” Or “We thought we could do it this way, but it turns out we couldn’t.” In different words, those events are “the outcome wasn’t what we planned” and “we couldn’t execute the process as planned.” In other words, “problems.”

In summary, specify what you intend to accomplish, how and when you intend to do it.
Any departure, necessary or inadvertent, from this specification is a problem.

The organization must have a process for immediately detecting and responding to problems.

It doesn’t do much good to define a problem unless you intend to respond. And you can’t stand and watch every second for problems to occur. That is the whole point of jidoka. When Sakichi Toyoda developed his loom, the prevailing common thinking was “sometimes the threads break.” “When that happens, some material is ruined.” “That is reality.” “Perfection is impossible.” Chatter is noise.

But Sakichi changed the dynamic when he designed a loom that detected a broken thread and shut itself down before any bad material was woven. Now I am fairly certain that, even today, threads break on weaving equipment. (And the same technology developed by Sakichi is used to detect it.) So, as a jidoka, this is a case of detecting a small problem and containing it immediately so it can be corrected.

Consider this: If the organization really understands jidoka then any problem that goes undetected is a problem. Thus, it isn’t necessary to fix it all at once. Rather, when problems occur, get back to where they occured. Look at the actual situation. What was the very first detectable departure from the intended process? It is quite likely that it is a small thing, and also likely it happens all the time. But this time it didn’t get caught and corrected.

Then ask: Can you prevent this departure from process?
If you can’t, can it be immediately and automatically corrected?
If not, can the process be stopped?

But detecting the problem is only the first step. The response is even more important. When a Team Member (or a machine) detects a problem and calls for help, a real live human needs to show up and show genuine interest. The immediate issue is simple: Fix the problem. Restore a safe operation that produces defect-free output. That may take a temporary countermeasure involving some improvisation, and may compromise speed and cost a little, but safety and quality are never compromised for anything… right?

The next step is to start the process of actually solving the problem. At a minimum, it needs to be written down and put into the “We’ll work on that” management queue (See the next item) to get solved. Note that “fixing it” and “solving it” are two completely separate things.

The organization must have a process for managing problem solving.

When a problem occurs, the first response is to detect it, then to fix (or contain) it. That is jidoka. But at some point, someone has to investigate why it happened, get to the root cause, and establish a robust countermeasure.

Again, I have talked around this in a couple of previous posts:
Systematic Problem Solving
A Systematic Approach to Part Shortages

However it is done, however, the organizations that do it well:

  • Have a public written record of what problems are on the radar. The most common approach is a board of some kind in the area where the daily review takes place.
  • Did I just say “Daily Review?” There is a process to check the status of ongoing problem solving activity every day. Problems being worked on do not get a chance to fall off the radar.
  • They manage their talent. The organization I talked about in the “Part Shortages” story had a lot of problems, not just in part shortages, but technical issues as well. Initially they had been assigning each problem to someone as soon as it came up. That quickly became unworkable because, in spite of their tremendous talent, the key players really couldn’t focus on more than one or two things at a time. It was demoralizing for them to get hammered at the meetings for “doing nothing” on five problems because they had been working on the other two. The countermeasure was a prioritized pull system. Each new problem went into a queue. As a problem solver became available (because s/he was done with one), the next problem on the list was assigned. The prioritization system was simple: The manufacturing manager could re-sequence the queue at any time.Thus, the problem at the top of the list — the next one to be assigned — was always the next most important. But it was another important rule that made this work. No one could be pulled off a problem s/he was already working on in favor of a “hot” problem. The only exceptions were a safety issue or a defect that had escaped the factory and had been reported by a customer. However you manage it, keep these things in mind:
    • Don’t arbitrarily multi-task your talent. People can’t multi-task. This is actually overloading. The other word for it is muri.
    • Don’t jerk them from one thing to the next without allowing them completion.
  • They solve the problem at the lowest level of the organization capable of solving it. The corollary here is largely covered below, but it bears mentioning here: If the level that should be solving it isn’t capable then they work THAT problem – developing the skill – rather than ignoring the issue or overloading someone who is never going to have the time to work on it. This is probably the most important lesson in this piece.

They deliberately and systematically develop their problem solving skills at all levels.

It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that someone with a technical degree is a skilled problem solver and critical thinker. Experience suggests otherwise. And even if there are a couple of people who just have the innate talent, there are not enough of them to go around. There are lots of approaches out there. In reality, all of the effective ones are anchored in the same thinking, they just use different tools and lingo to frame that thinking. My best advice is pick one, teach everyone to use it, then insist that they follow the process exactly. Only by doing that will you actually learn if the process itself has weakness or shortcomings.

Along with this is don’t confuse the tools with the process itself. THIS IS CRITICAL: Anything you draw on paper (or create in a computer) is a tool. The seven problem solving tools are not a process. A statistical control chart is not a process. An A3 is not a process. A cloud diagram is not a process. All of these are tools. The framework in which they are used is structured thinking, and that is a process.

This is important because the process itself is straight forward and simple. It can be taught to anyone. Teaching them the tools, however, teaches them nothing at all about how to solve problems. So many “problem solving courses” spend a week teaching people how to build Pareto charts, histograms, tree diagrams, run charts, even build control charts, and yet teach nothing at all about how to solve problems. Most problems can be solved by unsophisticated troubleshooting techniques that systematically eliminate possible causes. Some can’t, but most can.

This got long, but I guess I had a lot to say on the topic. In the background, I am planning on putting together some basic material on “the process of problem solving” and making it available. Hopefully that will help.

As always, comments are encouraged and appreciated. It tells me that someone actually reads this stuff.