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The Manufacturer's Agenda: The First -- and Most Important -- Step to Solving Any Problem

Feb. 14, 2013
If you think you’re implementing the lean approach to problem-solving, you might want to make sure you haven’t misinterpreted the meaning of lean.
Patricia Panchak, Editor-in-Chief

The more I research the problems that bedevil U.S. manufacturers and try to find and share the stories of companies that are solving them, the more I appreciate lean management principles. More specifically, I’m thankful I’ve learned about root-cause analysis, the five whys, value stream mapping, A3 problem-solving and other lean tools that force close and clear thinking. The lean approach insists that a cross-functional team identify the root cause of a problem and truly understand the current state of a process before taking the next steps toward implementing a solution or making a change.

Too often, leaders at all levels skip this important first step of problem-solving. The jury, for me, is still out as to why; we all must answer that for ourselves. Perhaps the pace of work encourages corner cutting; or the problem and solution are just so obvious; or (my bias) we think everyone on the team is talking about the same thing, but we’re not.

Indeed, I must take a step back: If you think you’re implementing the lean approach to problem-solving, you might want to make sure you haven’t misinterpreted the meaning of lean.

To understand and explain lean and other leadership approaches, we often simplify them, a topic I addressed in my September 2012 column. However, just because a strategy appears to be easily understood in theory, doesn’t mean it is simple and easy in practice. Other times, it’s a matter of focus.

Contributing Columnist Jamie Flinchbaugh, in one of his characteristically excellent columns, provides an example. Of the most popular definition of lean, “Do more with less,” he asserts, most people focus on the latter part of the phrase, “with less.” However, he insists, “The words ‘Do more’ are what’s core to lean.” Flinchbaugh goes on to describe what it means to “eliminate waste,” which you’ll recognize is a lean tenet. In doing so, he declares: “The more finely tuned our language and understanding, the more finely tuned our power of identifying waste as it occurs.”

Two other examples of where we have or may take shortcuts are included in the aptly titled “US Manufacturing: The Misunderstood Economic Powerhouse,” and “The High Cost of Poor Decisions."

In the former, Emily DeRocco, former president of The Manufacturing Institute, reportedly amplifies a concern I share: that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is doing a poor job of defining -- and therefore tracking -- manufacturing jobs. She and others cited in the article note that this and other misunderstandings impede our ability to tackle manufacturing’s skilled workforce challenge.

In the latter, Senior Editor Jill Jusko reviews Duke Okes’ book “Performance Metrics,” in which Okes describes one of the most common mistakes made when deciding which metrics to track. You guessed it: It’s trying to decide without first asking mission-critical questions about what you’re trying to accomplish.

It might seem to be faster to move quickly from seeing a problem to solving it. It’s not. 

About the Author

Patricia Panchak | Patricia Panchak, Former Editor-in-Chief

Focus: Competitiveness & Public Policy

Call: 216-931-9252

Follow on Twitter: @PPanchakIW

In her commentary and reporting for IndustryWeek, Editor-in-Chief Patricia Panchak covers world-class manufacturing industry strategies, best practices and public policy issues that affect manufacturers’ competitiveness. She delivers news and analysis—and reports the trends--in tax, trade and labor policy; federal, state and local government agencies and programs; and judicial, executive and legislative actions. As well, she shares case studies about how manufacturing executives can capitalize on the latest best practices to cut costs, boost productivity and increase profits.

As editor, she directs the strategic development of all IW editorial products, including the magazine,, research and information products, and executive conferences.

An award-winning editor, Panchak received the 2004 Jesse H. Neal Business Journalism Award for Signed Commentary and helped her staff earn the 2004 Neal Award for Subject-Related Series. She also has earned the American Business Media’s Midwest Award for Editorial Courage and Integrity.

Patricia holds bachelor’s degrees in Journalism and English from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in Journalism from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She lives in Cleveland Hts., Ohio, with her family.  

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