Lean Problem Solving
Problem solving using the Scientific Method is a key part of many organizations since Dr. Deming and Toyota applied this process in quality circles and manufacturing processes. The method, which in it’s most simplistic form is described as Plan, Do, Check, Act….or PDCA, is the basis of Lean today. The tools of lean, the management system, and the philosophies of Lean are all designed to create a PDCA cycle that creates sustainable business learning and results. This should be true at all levels of a truly lean organization. At a strategic level there should be a longer PDCA cycle with appropriate KPI’s, visuals, and reviews. This PDCA supports the longer vision of the organization and should be broken down to all of the functional levels at more frequent PDCA cycles through out the organization. Many companies are fairly effective of having the key components at the strategic level and the next level down of functional areas typically have the basic components for a PDCA at that level. Where gaps usually exist in designing a lean problem solving culture is at the shop floor level, where true value for the customer actually exists.
Gap on the Shop Floor
“Shop floor” is a term that is used to reference where the value added work is happening within an organization no matter what kind of processes exists in the company. At the shop floor level, Problem solving needs to happen at a speed that most companies don’t know how to manage or facilitate to be effective. When companies realize the need to have a plan and solve problems at a weekly, daily, and hourly pace…typically this is causes a situation where no action occurs at all. The fear of failure rooted in cultures that are used to working on problems over weeks, months, even years…hoping for the silver bullet machine or process to fix all the problems at once impede them from moving forward on simple problems facing them today. Toyota teaches that every problem, no matter how big or small, is the key to creating positive change and learning for the entire organization. So, if your organization is only focusing on problem solving on a Monthly basis…how much is your company really learning? What if your organization was solving 10, 20, 50 problems a day? Think of the learning and how those results can add up to help your organization achieve larger strategic goals. This is the key to unlocking the potential of continuous improvement, actually improving on a daily basis in a structured and sustainable manor.
Daily Improvement Plan
Fail fast and fail often. This is the type of thinking that must be adopted in order to unlock daily improvement. There can’t be a fear of failure if rapid, quick improvement through PDCA is going to take place. In fact, if PDCA is being used properly, there really is no “failure” in terms of the bigger vision because with every PDCA cycle comes learning. The learning allows the team member to be that much more equipped and capable for the next cycle of PDCA.
In order for this daily PDCA process to happen, the organization must focus on three things early on to start the foundation of a daily improvement culture. First, empower the process owners and employees doing the work to make change with a “Bias for action” approach. Encourage them to take small problems, quickly come up with a plan on how to solve it, and test it. Without fear of failure, without pressures of specific business goals…just solve something! Focus on the “Bias for action” before being concerned with how effective the solution was or what problem was chosen. Second, work with them to use “creativity before capital”. Many of the daily problems that are focused on should be able to solve, or at least test, with little to no money. Encourage using cardboard and duct tape to test a solution before buying the solution. This approach will create a much better learning experience and will eliminate the default of buying solutions and instead focus on how to solve the problem today in a very quick manner. Lastly, focus feedback very heavily on the learning and the process, not the results. The results will come. Many companies focus so much on the results, that it undermines the process. The process of using PDCA as a way of quick problem solving should be front and center with the long-term expectation that the learning will translate into long term sustainable results.
Every organization needs this army of problem solvers moving the improvement needle everyday, but it does need to be focused. Otherwise we are not deploying our resources in the organization on our most important problems. There are processes to accomplish this which leads into the overall management system for the organization and how all activities, in all areas are aligned. This is very important….but start failing fast and often with a bias for action…alignment in the organization can come later, in another post.