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Problem-Solving — The Secret to Successful Lean Transformations

By Jim Little, Regional Vice President, , Simpler Consulting, an IBM Company

At Simpler® Consulting, an IBM Company, we’re often asked what we think is the “secret ingredient” to making a Lean transformation successful. From a big-picture view, our experience has shown us there are four major factors necessary for breakthrough organizational change, and they can be expressed by the following formula:

Leadership commitment
X Team member engagement
X Strength of transformational methodology
X Problem-solving capabilities of the organization
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= Lean transformation success

If any of these four elements are missing, the organization will have a slower, less effective transformation — or it could fail altogether.

After all, it is a well-established fact that organizations won’t reach their transformational potential without unwavering leadership commitment and involvement. In previous editions of Simpler’s Lean Insights, we’ve discussed the topics of leadership commitment (August 2008) and leader standard work (April 2013). In his book, Leading the Lean Enterprise Transformation, George Koenigsaecker addresses the criticality of leadership.

Next, both team member engagement and transformation methodology, though far from easy, develop organically from robust implementation of the Simpler Business System® (SBS).

Finally, there’s the organization’s problem-solving capability. While not a secret ingredient per se, that element is often simply assumed to be present and easy to overlook — even though lack of it has stunted more than a few organizations’ transformational efforts.

Problem-Solving as a Key Enabler to Lean Transformation
It’s natural for all of us to want to avoid discomfort, and process improvement draws people into uncomfortable situations. However, with problem-solving skills, we can move through the uneasiness.

Consider that identifying and eliminating waste is one of the most rewarding elements of the Rapid Improvement Event (RIE) process. Team members are empowered and energized. “Lowering the water,” as the often-used Lean analogy goes, is exciting. But “breaking the rocks,” or identifying and removing obstacles on the path to perfection, is hard work.

The wastes discovered by the RIE process — sometimes represented by excessive inventory, defects and accompanying rework, and unplanned delays — were not usually intentionally designed into the original process. Instead, they were added to the process as workarounds, as the result of unresolved problems, and soon became the new “normal.” The RIE process exposes these wastes and quickly eliminates them. But unless the underlying root causes of the problems are addressed and resolved, the new “leaned” process is likely to struggle, stall, or in the extreme, regress to the prior state.

As part of their commitment to the Lean transformation, leaders must focus on building the organization’s problem-solving capabilities.

Every Problem Is an Improvement Opportunity Within all organizations there is a virtually endless supply of problems — and an endless supply of opportunities for improvement. Those opportunities only become real, though, when the organizational culture focuses on continuous improvement.

The first step in solving problems is to identify them. Identification of problems begins by going to where the work is done — the “gemba.” Leaders must venture into the workplace to observe how work is being done and seek to understand what is really happening with the product/service, the individual doers, the customer, or the organization.

One must also understand the standard, or “what good looks like,” in the gemba. The five core components of the flow cells developed in the RIE process (One-by-One Flow, 6S, Standard Work, Pull, and Visual Management) all define the expected standard operation of the process. By simply observing the process in action during routine gemba walks and comparing what is seen to the documented standard work, leaders can easily pinpoint the abnormalities or problems, and begin to solve for them.

One easy and powerful technique Lean leaders can utilize is to ask a series of simple questions during in-gemba reviews:

1) Is there a standard?
2) Is the standard being followed?
3) Is the process producing the desired outcomes?
4) How is the standard being improved?

People and their ideas are at the heart of continuous improvement. Engaging team members in discussions regarding standard work and its implementation (or lack thereof) can often expose problems and root causes that need to be addressed. Simple white board exercises with team members to explore the “five whys” or “fishbone diagrams” (also known as cause-and-effect diagrams) can be helpful.

Process Control Boards are also full of “treasures” that may be impeding process successes. The actual versus target variances, as well as the comments section, often point directly to problems and their solutions.

The Managing for Daily Improvement (MDI) process is another great problem-solving process. MDI systemically engages team members who are experts at their process. The daily huddle to review team performance, prioritize problems, and identify and implement solutions can also solve problems or prevent new ones before they become major impediments.

Solving problems in the gemba doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Leaders simply need to create the systems to make the standard known, ensure abnormalities are visible, and then empower and assist team members in implementing countermeasures.