Problem-Solving Through the Lean Lens

Design processes, organizations and culture around finding and solving problems where they occur.

Lean manufacturing has been surrounded by many misconceptions and myths over the past 10 years. While there are enough erroneous ideas on lean to fill many articles, we are going to focus on just one misnomer -- that lean is only about speed and not about problem-solving. The truth is that lean is, in fact, all about problem-solving. It is this never-ending process of problem solving that prevents us from getting to an ideal state -- the state in which every customer's needs are met on time and with zero waste.

Most problem-solving efforts tend to focus on the output of the process. We measure the output, we analyze the data, we find the gaps, and then we go to work on them. This approach has worked and will continue to work as long as the problems reflect specific trends or consistent gaps.

However, when we need a process capable of not just identifying and solving a major failure, but able to also eliminate the millions of individual opportunities for mistake or error, a different lens and approach is needed.

The Lean Lens on Problems

I hail from York, Pa., just down the Susquehanna River from Three Mile Island, the nuclear power plant that experienced a too-close-to-catastrophic accident in 1979. Through extensive analysis and study, the attempts to pin down the problem to one or two vital things failed, because the process broke down at many steps. For example, a maintenance repair tag from a switch was hanging in front of an indicator light, which led to the wrong information and, ultimately, the wrong decision. No amount of inspection, data collection, sampling or large-scale problem-solving was going to help. What was needed, instead, was a process, system and organization capable of surfacing deviations of any kind at every step of the process as well as a procedure to respond effectively to these deviations. This is one of the central tenets upon which all of lean is based.

Systems must be designed, employees skilled and cultures attuned to the ability to identify deviations wherever they may lie and without the interference of a manager who will deem the problem as insignificant. This cannot be done only in the problem-solving phase. It must be designed into the process, far in advance of the problem occurring. The work process should be such that when the problem does occur, we know about it immediately.

Let's look at the phases of problem solving -- identifying the problem, surfacing/engaging the problem, and sustaining the solution -- and how the lean lens can add value in these phases.

Identify the Problem

Far too often, the method of choice for identifying problems is letting them find us. This basic element of the general problem-solving progression is underappreciated and often neglected altogether. There are so many problems that find us, because the customer was impacted or our monthly result was affected, that we accept this process as normal or satisfactory. It plainly is not. We greatly underestimate the impact of solving problems at the micro level, as the problem is occurring. Additionally, this reactive method does not allow us to be at all strategic in solving the problems, which prevents us from getting to our stated goal. The problems that find us often end up occupying so much of our time that we never get to address the core issues and more important problems.

For example, take a tool as plain as painting lines on the factory floor, referred to as cycle timing marks in an assembly process. These marks help the operator know where they are in the cycle, which is often broken down in 10% increments. In most organizations, a tool such as this is underutilized because it is viewed through a traditional lens, which says that its purpose is to help the operator keep pace and to speed up if he is behind. However, when viewed through a lean lens, this is not the purpose. The work should keep its own pace. The true purpose of the lines is to help spot problems as they occur. If something is wrong with a task -- from parts that don't quite fit to a sluggish air motor -- the lag in cycle time will be immediately identifiable, providing opportunity for quick intervention.

Another example of missing the point in problem identification often happens through the use of the 5S tool (sift, sweep, sort, sanitize, sustain) -- often misused as the lean implementation starting point. When I ask organizations utilizing 5S the simple question "What is the purpose of 5S?" I get a plethora of answers ranging from cleanliness and morale to discipline and structure. The answers are almost always wrong. The proper purpose of 5S is to create an environment where problems can be quickly identified. Imagine the setup operator who needs a critical tool, but when it comes time to execute the changeover the tool cannot be found -- the 30-minute changeover increases to 60 minutes. Or the inventory numbers at the end of the month rise because more and more material has been stuffed into each workstation. Or the customer has a failure because the operator grabbed the wrong, uncalibrated torque wrench that was lying nearby. All of these problems are examples of conditions that can be spotted and corrected much earlier, much faster, much cheaper and without negatively impacting performance through a tool such as 5S.

It is not the tool itself that is important, but rather the question, "Will the work itself tell me that a problem is occurring before it impacts us?" The lean lens allows us to design work so that problems become visible and rise to the surface. What's needed in addition to this is a culture that supports this notion and a means to deal with the problem once it is identified.

Problem Engagement

There exists an assumption in managers today that if a problem is found it will be dealt with. In actuality, most systems and cultures function in a way that allows the problem to select us rather than us selecting the problem. Most problems are dismissed as either insignificant or as "typical, so it's not really a problem." And, in general our capacity to acknowledge and solve multiple problems is limited to a handful of key people. We need an organization with the capability and capacity to solve 100 times more problems than we do today. And, we need a process that connects the right people to the problems. This is a major gap for most organizations.

Andon systems are an example of a solution. However, most people focus on the physical element -- the andon cord rather than focusing on the process. Whether the problem is spotted by a person or a machine, the andon process essentially raises its hand, drawing attention to itself, asking for help. The andon process accomplishes two goals. First, it gets resources to each problem as it occurs, not after it is inspected or found through data. Second, and this is just as important but seldom highly valued, is that by connecting resources together, an explicit structure and highly repetitive process for learning is created. By engaging in each problem in a structured way, every individual learns and is coached. Over time, this builds up a massive capacity to solve problems. This capability then enables the solving of millions of small problems BEFORE they become the big problems.


Problem-solving is often effective through the root cause phase, but fails at the point of selecting the appropriate solution. Many solutions fall into two categories of ineffectiveness. The first is the "force fit" solution, where extra work, burden, complexity and review are thrown into the process in order to force an effective result. All of this adds waste to the process, hindering speed and efficiency and thus will end up eventually being eliminated. The other approach is the "try harder" solution, which involves more training, coaching or incentives. This also has the potential to complicate the situation. When looking through the lean lens and striving for sustainable solutions, one simple rule applies -- make the new way easier (or easiest) or make the old way impossible.

In Conclusion

Problem solving is employed in every organization on the face to the earth and is the primary tool by which we create stable and capable processes. Traditional tools and thinking will work to a point, but lean thinking can take organizations to another level of success. However, the key to solving more problems more efficiently is to not wait for the problem to present itself, but instead design our processes, organizations and culture around finding and solving problems where they occur, surfacing and isolating the problem at its point of origin.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and the co-author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road.

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