Yeah, problem solving

Most people love to solve problems and feel the satisfaction of getting rid of some nasty tricky problem. It’s an outdated but still lasting belief that management is about problem solving. Problem solving turned in some cases into the managers’ and engineers’ holly mission and in some minds, the more problems the manager/engineer solves, the better manager/engineer he/she is. This kind of problem solving can be addictive, hence the Arsonist Fireman Syndrome.

On the other hand, thanks to Lean Management, enlightened managers understand it is crucial to refrain from solving problems and develop their subordinates’ ability to solve problems themselves instead.

Note that all the above is about problem solving, not problem avoidance or problem prevention. And if today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions, as stated in Peter Senge’s “The 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline”, in a world requiring increasingly fast decisions (read solutions), we’ll never run out of new problems to solve.

So what’s wrong with problem solving?

There are at least 2 major issues with actual problem solving practices.

1. Quick fixes

Solutions to problems are most often quick fixes made of the first “best” idea that popped up. Problem solving is not very often a robust and standardized process, systematically rolled out. In fact formal problem solving processes seldom exist even if everybody is claiming solving problems.

If known, simple structured approaches like PDCA are disregarded and ignored, pretending the situation requires quick reaction and not “unnecessary paperwork!”

Often, the problem seem to be fixed, giving credit to the firefighters and reinforcing their belief in their “way” of handling.

It is not really surprising that the same problem keeps showing up as the fixes did not eradicate the problem’s root cause, and the problem itself was never really studied, hence understood.

2. No risk assessment / risk mitigation

If formal and structured processes to tackle problems are seldom, the solutions’ risk assessment is even more seldom. And if the rush to quick fixes leaves no time for properly analyzing the possible problem root causes, no need to mention non-existing attempts to figure out the possible risks these quick fixes bring with them.

Chances are that the ill-prepared and hastily put in place solutions generate unexpected Undesirable Effects. What may fix one problem may well cause one or several others to appear.

That’s how quick and dirty troubleshooting usually come at the expense of later longer efforts to cope with a situation that possibly grew worse, and how Peter Senge’s quote: “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions” makes the most sense.

What solutions?

  • Choose yourself a structured problem solving approach, there are several available. Try it and if proven suitable for your purpose make it your standard way of approaching a problem.
  • Make sure the implemented solutions will really kill the problem by measuring on a long time horizon if the trouble has disappeared for good. The Quality Operating System is perfect for that.
  • Explore the Logical Thinking Process, the sole complex problem solving methodology I know which includes a systematic “Negative Branch” check to avoid or mitigate Undesirable Effects as by-products of the implemented solution.

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The fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives – Part 1

the-fallacy-of-bottom-up-lean-initiatives

Yes, Lean initiatives can be started bottom-up, but I doubt they’ll get very far and last for long. Here is why.

Bottom-up Lean initiatives, e.i. improvements, are opportunities for improvement found by shopfloor people, line leaders or shop management. “Improvement” is most often understood in a broad meaning and bring up suggestions ranging from make worker routine job easier, fix small problems, make the workplace more enjoyable, achieve their work more efficiently and maybe add some value for end customers.

In order to awaken the staff to finding such opportunities, an initial training about Lean principles, the seven wastes (the infamous muda!) is often necessary, with “kaizen events” organized to hunt wastes and frame the initiatives.

Most often the improvement suggestions and bottom-up Lean initiatives remain in this format: a moderated, paced, focused and framed series of periodic workshops. The events are planned and not problem-driven, done when the workload allows it, which means when people have time and management agreement to distract some resources and time from regular operations.

Here lays a triple pitfall:

  1. People do not develop an autonomous Lean Thinking culture, but keep playing the assistants of some appointed Lean “genius”(1). If the latter is not available, the event cannot happen (so common when “black belts” are mandatory) and chances are that the knowledge gathered during these events will not remain with the team, but go away with the facilitator instead
  2. Problems are not tackled when they appear, failing to use the opportunity for learning from a real, actual and acute case. The muda hunters are set loose to “find something to improve” when the kaizen event is scheduled
  3. As the kaizen events are scheduled and too often subordinate to low workload, the “continuous improvement” is erratic in frequency, inconsistent with learning, problem solving and likely to be stopped for good at some point because “We have no time”.

The format and drawbacks of those events is not the sole reason for making me doubt about bottom-up Lean initiatives being viable. Those bottom-up ideas and initiatives assume that the suggestions will lead to real improvements.

Yet how many of them are nothing else than improving the workplace comfort, changing something to workers’ preferences or taste while assuming this will ultimately lead to (noticeable) performance improvement?

I’ve seen many such “improvements” agreed because management wanted to show willingness to back up bottom-up suggestions, foster workers’ commitment and not discourage them from the beginning. Other suggestions were agreed on the belief they would indeed improve “something”.

Yet most often the evidence of the improvement is not delivered, and no kind of measurement is set up to demonstrate the gain. I am not even expecting for an indisputable demonstration of the cause-and-effect relationship linking the “improvement” to a positive increase of performance, a trustworthy correlation would suffice.

Worse, the good idea in say manufacturing is to have parts unpacked and presented ready to assemble for assembly line workers. The unpacking and display of parts is pushed upstreams to the logistic team feeding the lines. As production lines productivity is measured and closely watched, their efficiency may well go up when the parts preparation is get rid of.

For the logistics team it’s another story, it must absorb additional workload without compensation and as usually its productivity is not measured, nobody sees the waste simply moved to it, perhaps at the expense of other useful activities.

Even worser: Value Stream Mapping is one of the most popular Lean tool and used as a waste revelator. So Value Stream Maps flourish and again muda hunters are set loose to eliminate waste. What the mappers overlook in the first place is the value of the stream they are mapping. And sometimes the process under scrutiny is a pure waste that is noticeable when seen from broader perspective, or higher altitude if you will. But this vantage point isn’t familiar to shopfloor staff.

Isn’t it ironic they put means and time to optimise possible waste? A Lean-deadly sin…

What happens so often next with bottom-up initiatives is top management asking where the beef is. After all, time and resources have been used to “improve”, so where is the return on this investment? And getting no convincing answer, the whole is finally put on hold and frustrated stakeholders conclude that Lean doesn’t work. (2)

Summing up

  • Scheduled and framed workshops are not the best way to develop a Lean culture, especially if it’s the only “continuous improvement” mode
  • Teams remain helpers to the appointed Lean / Six Sigma champion, barely develop a Lean culture
  • Bottom-up initiatives are too often based on unchallenged assumptions regarding the outcome, started on wishful thinking
  • Middle management often lacks the courage to discard suggestions that will obviously not lead to meaningful improvement
  • Improvements are too often local optimizations at the expense of the greater good
  • Shopfloor staff don’t know the bigger picture, hence improve what they see and know, reinforcing the previous point
  • Proof of the reality of the improvement is not systematically delivered
    At some point top management will put an end

Footnotes

(1) “Genius with a Thousand Helpers”, in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”.
(2) I do not approve the way some companies require a calculation of a ROI prior to any change, because the way many costs are defined are questionable. Sometimes improvement are hard or even impossible to express in numbers: reduction of Lead Time, neatness, morale…That’s why I mentioned “correlations”.

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From Obeya to wallpaper show room

When visual management turns into useless wallpaper

Having an Obeya is the latest – fashionable – sign an organization takes Lean seriously. The name itself sounds performing as is it is so strongly related to Lean.

Obeya may sound both exotic and performing, but is nothing more than a “big room”.

(I assume the perplexed Japanese are too polite to ask why so many westerners get jumpy when getting a big room.)

The bigger the room the longer the walls that call for something to display. And in order to make the obeya impressive, especially to visitors, lots of graphs, figures, tables, drawings, photos and maps must be displayed. So shall it be.

As a matter of fact, many companies display impressive walls clad of the previously mentioned printed material, plus sticky notes and hand colored symbols.

Well, many and most of the obeyas I’ve seen fail to turn to the war room where smart decisions are made to win the never ending battle against the empire of waste and its dreaded sneaky saboteurs named muda, mura and muri.

Getting closer to the display, it takes the outsider a while to find out the meaning of what is shown. I didn’t expect the pride about achievements to be that discreet, but it turns out, once the code for reading the charts has been broken, that the pride and achievement are still to come. Anytime soon suggests the presenter.

Not seldom are the prints totally outdated, and latest manual inputs (a place is left for them) missing. Key performance indicators graphs are plotted without any mention of unit nor indication of the target. Some data tables or audit sheets show the period between two events, confirming the lack of cadence.

Actions plans are anything but that. Fluffy wording is used to describe problems and even more fuzzy ones to describe the actions to take. The department in charge are mentioned together with a date (never know if it is the date the information is pushed to this department or the expected date of problem resolution), but nothing to track the actor’s acknowledgment, results nor to check off the action as successful.

The latest obeya with long walls full of complicated looking graphs and lots of other information turned out to be a kind of wall of shame, bluntly displaying and confirming what was happening on the nearby shopfloor. With time lag though.

Nevertheless, those obeyas just as the successful ones, set the scene for ritual meetings where the poor performances are “discussed” without many convincing decisions taken. My colleague describes those rooms as places where people shout at each other, standing.

Now, when I am invited to visit the Obeya, I expect to see visual management turned into useless wallpaper and the dedicated war room turned into a pathetic wallpaper showroom.

To end this post with a more optimistic tone, I assume I am only called to places in trouble and those working well simply do not need me.


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Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are

This quote, often falsely attributed to Theodore Roosevelt (see Sue Brewton’s blog), is an excellent mantra for both personal and management use.

Too often when facing a problem or a challenge, individuals tend to push it to others, to complain about their insufficient resources and have great ideas for others instead. Think about the latest cost reduction program for instance.

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With the “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are” mantra in mind when facing a problem or a challenge, the right approach should be:

  • What can I do by myself? What is in my hand? What actions are within my scope of authority / autonomy, what can I decide / engage / implement by myself?
  • With the means at my disposal, what can I do? How far can I go and is it enough to achieve the goal? What do I really need more to achieve the goal?
  • From my position in the organization, what can I do? What can I decide? What can I influence?

Here are 3 situations the mantra can be great for.

1. Facing one’s fears

These questions should be part of a personal routine and a mental checklist. Especially when facing a scary or challenging situation, going through the questions shifts the focus from emotional perceptions to factual assessment.

There is probably more that can be done than instinctively perceived, so in order not to give up too fast, remembering the mantra guides to an inventory of possible options.

We could double the mantra by another maxim I’ve found in General George S. Patton’s memoirs: “Do not take counsel of your fears.”

2. Facing the boss

When discussing a problem or a challenge with the boss, the quick inventory of personal possibilities avoids disappointing him/her with a list of reasons why the problem is very tough to solve or the goal out of reach, with request for more means or with suggestions for others to act instead.

Only when one’s capabilities, available means or one’s position in the organization are truly insufficient to solve the problem or achieve the goal, the limitations of all possible current options should be fed back to the boss.

3. Facing subordinates

On the other side a manager who sees a direct report trying to escape his/her duty, demanding more resources or offering great ideas for others, the rephrasing is easy:

  • I ask YOU to do what YOU can do
  • I ask YOU to do with the resources YOU have
  • I ask YOU to consider the options YOU have from YOUr position in YOUr perimeter

Conclusion

“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are” is easy to remember, holds a lot of calm confidence and wisdom and can come handy in several situations.

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The man-machine system performance

When looking for performance improvement of a man-machine system, too often management puts emphasis onto machine or technology at large, ignoring the fact that humans associated with equipment, machines or technology form an interrelated system and consequently humans are the discriminating factor.

The fallacy of trusting the latest technology

There is a strong belief, backed up by vendor’s marketing, that the latest state-of-the-art high-tech equipment will bring a breakthrough in performance. This is welcome news for executives struggling to keep their organization up with competition and seeking a significant performance uplift.

Production managers, industrial engineers or system designers are big kids loving high-tech expensive toys, geeks of their own kind and dreaming to get the latest, biggest, fastest piece of equipment.

Once investment made, performance does not skyrocket though.

What happened?

Management blindness

Management ignored the human factor, i.e. people put in front or in charge of the new machine, the latest technology. An operator and his machine for instance are a system.

The overall performance of this system is determined by the human-machine pair, and guess what, the most variable and hardest to control is the human factor.

Unlike machines, humans have their moods, their worries, variable health and morale, private concerns and motivation issues. One day fine, the other day down.

Humans are not equal in competencies and skills. Some learn fast, some learn slow and some never really get it.

So what’s the point giving the latest top-notch technology to someone not competent or not motivated?

Yet this is most often what happens. Management assumes that the best of machines will make the difference, totally ignoring the influence of the people in charge.

The irresistible appeal of technology

Most decision makers and managers have some kind of hard-science background, got their degrees in engineering or business management. They were taught the robustness of math, the beauty of straightforward logic and to trust only facts and data.

When puzzled facing in real-life the highly variable and elusive nature of humans, they have a natural tendency to prefer hardware. This is something that can be put into equations and eventually controlled. This is what they are most familiar with or at least the most at ease with.

Humans are only trouble. No equation helps to understand their intrinsic drivers nor to reduce their variabilities. This is all about soft skills and psychological factors. Nothing for engineers and hard science-minded people.

Instead, they put a strong hope that the best and latest technology will trump the human factor, reduce it to a neglectable pain. But this never happens.

So again: what’s the point giving the latest top-notch technology to someone not competent or not motivated?

Leveraging performance

In order to improve a man-machine system, it is key to first have a look on the human factor, the most important one. Make sure competency is granted. If someone lacks the necessary competencies, performance is nothing than a matter of luck.

Beware of incompetent but highly motivated people though. In their desire to do well, they may have unknowingly potentially dangerous behaviours and/or take bad decisions. These motivated ones are likely to learn, do thing right but need training and guidance.

Not motivated incompetents are not likely to take any initiatives. They are the manager’s pain and burden and giving them better, faster machines won’t help. What’s worse with not motivated incompetents is passive aggressive behaviors that can lead to potentially dangerous situations as well.

Competent but not motivated people need and probably deserve management’s attention in order to get them into the winning quadrant of the competency-motivation matrix, aka skill-will matrix (top right).

There are the competent and motivated people who do their job effectively, often efficiently and without bothering anybody.

Competent Find a driver or a whip No worries
Incompetent Long way to go… Potentially dangerous good will
Not motivated Motivated

Competency-motivation matrix from a supervisor perspective

It is with these competent and motivated people that the limits of machines or technology can be found, as they will use them properly and purposely. Even when these performance limits are reached, it’s not certain that better planning and/or better organization cannot get more performance out of the system.

Think about quick changeovers and all capacity that can be regained applying SMED methodology, or rethinking maintenance in Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) style.

Wrapping up

When facing the challenge for improving performance, considering the way operations are done should be the first step. The second is to remember than investing in people is usually cheaper and more effective than investing in technology in first place, because a well utilized outdated machine will have better yield and be way cheaper than a poorly utilized state-of-the-art new one.

“Unfortunately” for tech-lovers who would prefer new “toys”, this investment in humans has to be a substantial part of their manager’s daily routine.


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Redefining “problem” (with Goal in mind)

In problem solving or continuous improvement workshops a problem is usually defined as a gap between the actual situation and the desired situation, and thus a problem causes an unsatisfactory situation or an UnDesirable Effect (UDE).

This definition, while true, is somewhat too vague to be useful when working on solving problems and continuous improvement.

Indeed, in a business environment* many things can be qualified “undesirable situation” or “undesirable effect”, from bad tasting coffee to important production equipment breakdown, from laser printer toner stockout to quality control rejecting an important production batch.

In most business environments improvement opportunities are literally infinite.

*business environment can be very vague as well, I suggest every reader to transpose this article into his/her environment.

From these few examples it becomes obvious that the too broad definition of problems need some refinement. The limited time and resources of an organization should not be wasted on every so-called problems, but instead solely focused on the critical ones.

Failing to do so bears the risk of spending time and burning up resources to solve “problems” without any system-wide noticeable positive effect. That’s what happens to so many Lean initiatives or continuous improvement programs, draining significant resources for frustrating results.

So, how to select the problems worth coping with?

In a business environment the organization exists to achieve a Goal, itself subordinated to the achievement of several objectives. When something hinders the organization to achieve its objectives, hence its Goal, the hinderance is worth attracting (all) focus for problem solving.

In “The Logical Thinking Process, a  Systems Approach to Complex Problem Solving”, Bill Dettmer defines a UDE as “something that really exists; something that is negative compared with the system’s goal, Critical Success Factors or Necessary Conditions.” This definition is linked to The Goal Tree and if this one is properly built, the understanding of what an UDE is will be straightforward and unquestioned.

Now with the organization’s Goal in mind, a “problem” can be understood as an UnDesirable Effect (UDE) being an obstacle for the organization to achieve its objectives, its Goal. Anything felt undesirable but not directly threatening the achievement of the objectives or Goal is an annoyance at best.

Does it mean anything NOT threatening the objectives and Goal is not worth considering?

While priority must clearly be given to issues and UDEs hindering the organization to achieve its Goal, some “annoyances” should be taken care of as well. Things making job or life easier for employees for instance may not directly contribute to corporate objective achievement but can help improve morale, ergonomics, safety and the feeling of being important enough to the organization to deserve some attention.

Well, how to select these “problems” worth considering?

This is where methodologies handover to management, “science” handover to “art” and plain rationality to humanity. It’s up to managers to sense what is to be done, why and to what extend.


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Respect for people starts with saying hello

Lean respect for people principle is somewhat difficult to grasp in first place. While some gurus say it is not (only) about saying hello, I do think respect for people definitely starts with the basics of politeness, especially saying hello.

Respect or signs of reverence have long been unidirectional, from the lower ranking to the higher ranking, from subordinates to higher authority.

The mighty demanded respect to show how mighty they were and the lower ranking paid respect to the unquestioned power, especially when they were on the pointy side of the sword.

Everyone having been on the modern form of the pointy side of the sword (whatever it now is) understands that not been greeted or not been returned a hello is a deliberate sign showing some (real or pretended) distance.

Still in our days many higher ranking believe it is not necessary to say hello, return a greeting or simply be polite with “lower rankings”.

Respect for people is therefore, at least for me, recognizing the other as a peer, regardless of conventional or social ranking. Being polite is recognizing the other as a peer and showing him or her respect and saying hello is the very first polite sign to give.

When it comes to Lean Thinking and working to improve a process, the gathered talents can come in many forms and are all welcome. Original Lean did not come with grades and belts to show some kinds of ranks but put very different talents together to solve problems. And it usually works fine, especially when participants don’t have to care about (artificial) ranks or social differences.


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Why secret weapons can’t remain secret 

A secret weapon, in its metaphorical or literal meaning, is a means that trumps the actual known ones. It brings a decisive advantage to its user/owner, is more effective and… unknown.

A secret weapon will create a surprise and grant its user a favorable opportunity to exploit,  and if exploited properly can lead to victory.

Once the competition – in warfare or business – aware of the existence of a secret weapon, it will relentlessly try to gather information about it, destroy it or get one too in order to restore balance.

A good reason for the owner to keep on trying keeping it secret and competition to catch up. What eventually will happen.

On the other hand, at some moment it will be politically, strategically or “marketingly” smart to advertise on the competitive advantage and reveal the secret.

For those reasons a secret weapon can’t remain secret.

This is the case with Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM), a “new” approach still somewhat “confidential”.

When we applied it to aircraft MRO and helped our client to halve the aircraft turnaround time, we helped our client to forge a competitive advantage. And when we wanted to advertise about the achievement, the client was reluctant to “give away his secret weapon”.

Well, I thought, how long do you think it will take for word of mouth to spread? How long before your sales team will boast about shorter aircraft grounding? How long before the information will leak via informal channels?

In business it is useless to waste energy trying to keep the secret weapon secret.

On the contrary, focus should be on exploiting the competitive advantage, advertising heavily on it and quickly reap as much profit as possible before competition closes the gap.


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Leader Standard Work

The very first time I heard about “leader standard work” and “scripted day” I was puzzled.

Production manager myself at that time, in my view management must be ready for fixing things and react to all the random events that rain down onto a factory shopfloor. How could a day made of fixing unexpected problems be standardized?

Reflecting on it I realized that a significant share of a manager’s day/week is repetitive routine and can be translated into a standard, improved, simplified, amended, and so on.

Without noticing it, I developped my own daily and weekly routines and was in fact rolling out my private standards.

In later years, when I visited numerous companies as a consultant, I saw many cases of company managers, operations managers and the like not having a routine and lacking daily guidance. They just floated with the stream of daily problems, often drowning in them. The long hours did not result in effective decision making nor appropriate support to their staff.

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Another common issue with management is the reluctance to be on the shopfloor. Highly educated (especially the French…) managers consider beneath their dignity to spent time on the shop floor. The common belief is that a manager is someone having an office and spending time in meetings or behind a desk, a computer screen and on the phone.

No surprise, when line or lower ranking personnel get promoted, they want the same status symbols and soon refrain returning to the shopfloor.

I remember one case in a big print shop. The production manager was a former very skilled and capable technician that got promoted. From then on, he claimed a desk near the top manager’s office and ‘managed’ not to return into the shop. When top management threatened him if he didn’t move his desk into the shop, he demanded a customized office to be build on a mezzanine. What he was truly looking for was a symbol: being literally placed above his former co-workers.

To overcome this phenomenon and as sad it is, a scripted standard work is a (good?) way to get those managers back where they should spend a significant part of their time: on the shopfloor!

The necessary routine tasks are easy to describe and standardize in order to foster consistency and sustained practice. Log sheets prove the standard was fulfilled or makes the deviation apparent, reinforcing accountability.

Understandably any manager, foreman or line leader having a great deal of autonomy and freedom to organize him/herself may not be happy with it at once. It feel like a straightjacket and a return or fall to lower status.

What most of those vexed managers would not recognize is their poor ability to organize themselves in an efficient way and/or to keep ‘their’ routine robust and consistent. How many managers deep dive and forget themselves into things they like and procrastinate or ignore what they don’t like?

The standard work is a means to help them (even against their will) to have their days properly organized and aligned onto the organization’s goal.

In most cases standard work helps to sort and refine the daily tasks to those really meaningful and important. Conversely it is a means to simplify and/or ease the routine, saving fatigue and time for more important / interesting occupation.

Of course such a standard work must keep large time periods free, in order to cope with the unexpected events and urgencies.

It is also wise to coach the managers on their standard work, especially what to look for during routine tours or how to gemba walk.True listening capability when interacting with lower ranking managers and shopfloor personnel is also something that is not easy to develop alone.

How to engage, encourage, energize, praise or reprimand people is also something (newly promoted) managers have to/ should learn from a seasoned and more senior one.

Regular coaching with different coaches is a good way to hone the different skills and avoid complacency.

After a while, the standard will become the new routine, the new normal and the initial resentment vanish.


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