Lessons From the Road: Surfacing Problems Daily

Advice for building a problem-solving culture.

Before jumping into my topic of choice, I want to introduce my new column. I am very happy to join the IndustryWeek team. The title of this column, "Lessons from the Road," comes from the subtitle of our book, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean." My aim is to bring you practical, actionable advice to help with your continuous-improvement journey. And on to surfacing problems daily

The worst problems are those that we can't see. Yet most training focuses on how to solve problems. This assumes that we know how to surface problems and are surfacing the right ones. No matter how good we get at solving problems, it doesn't do any good if we're not solving the right ones.

Many of you have been through many rounds of problem-solving training. All of them work; it's rarely the method that's flawed. I find two faults. First, the right technique absent the right behaviors will still be a failure. Second, these techniques start after you know about the problem. We never hear about how we surface and manage problems, which precedes solving them.

When it comes to building a problem-solving culture, one of the most important traits is being able to surface problems quickly and face them honestly. During one assessment, I was observing a team going through its list of problems. Each problem was written down, and next to it was the action planned to fix the problem. Then, when the team reached the end of the list, there was some additional conversation about other problems.

Clearly, these "other" problems were ones that no one knew how to solve. Because the solutions were unknown, it was more comfortable not to write these problems down. Writing problems down forces us to face them. Like most organizations, the established culture dictated that they only face problems that they knew how to address. A lean culture, on the other hand, faces even the unknown, difficult and ugly problems, and makes those problems visible.

What you can do to improve

1. Assess the current condition. You need to know how people are thinking about problems. Go throughout the organization with these specific questions. First, "What problems do you have?" This helps understand how people are thinking about problems in their areas. Second, "What do you do when you see a problem?" This helps understand whether people even see this as a process, and the differences in their approaches.

2. Develop a mechanism. To some degree, it doesn't matter what mechanism you design. A mechanism can be writing problems on a whiteboard. It can be a chart on a wall. It can be a computerized system for entering problems and tracking them. There is no one best way. But if people can't answer what they should do when they find a problem, then you do not yet have a mechanism.

3. Establish non-monetary incentives to surface problems. It is important not to attach money to problems, as this will lead to more gaming than real problem-surfacing. People need to have a clear understanding of why they would use any mechanism, versus just keeping things to themselves. There is no single best answer as to how you should do this. It very much depends on the organization, the people and the culture. But if you do not address the why for people, you will have a mechanism without a customer.

4. Define how leaders should respond. If someone uses the mechanism to surface problems and their boss responds, "What on earth is wrong with you?", they will not cooperate. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood parts of any problem-surfacing mechanism is designing how people respond. You must determine who is the right person to respond, when they will respond and how they will respond. Consistency in this step may be the most important element of the process.

Problems can only be solved once they are surfaced. Don't worry -- you'll never run out of problems to solve. So surface them all, then worry about which one to solve. You never know when the really big ones are hiding just below the surface.

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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