By Justin Tao

What is Problem Solving?

Solving Problems is a part of almost every person’s daily life both at home and in the workplace. Here at TXM we talk about problem solving techniques a lot, such as 5 Whys, brainstorming, Fishbone Diagrams, Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA), flow charts, mind maps, you name it. Different companies and cultures have different ways of problem solving. There is even a controversial international guideline for problem solving on the internet. However, sometimes we talk too much about problem solving techniques and solutions; in the end, we forget what the real problem is. There is an urban legend states that NASA spent more than $1M to develop a Fisher Space Pen that could write in zero-gravity experienced during spaceflight, while the Soviet Union took the simpler and cheaper route of just using pencils.

So What Is a Problem?

A problem is a situation preventing something from being achieved. The word “problem” comes from a Greek word meaning an “obstacle” (something that is in your way).

In business, a problem is the deviation from the standard. To identify problems, we first need to know what the standard is. A “standard” is a target of how good a process or task should be. We can easily understand the gap between actual performance and the goal is a problem. Deviation from your standard high or low should be seen as a problem that needs rectifying. No standard means no problem; thus there’s no improvement. That’s why we say “No problem is a problem”. You might laugh at the Toyota production line as they get dozens of problems per shift. However, these problems are opportunities for their improvement. “No problem” means you haven’t set a good “standard” yet.

Setting Standards

A good standard should be an idea of where you want to go and is what you need to strive for. An unrealistic (too high) standard will destroy the team’s confidence and won’t help to build a continuous improvement.

A conservative (too low) standard is also not ideal, as it will weaken the drivers of further improvement. I remember when I was helping an ice-cream factory two years ago, the operations manager of that factory told me that there’s no need for improvement as their efficiency was more than 120% every day. After my observation of the shop floor, I found that there were two employees doing the work of one on their production line.

I have seen many companies set average performance for their goals as standards, which creates some problems. Below is a performance chart to demonstrate it. If you set the average performance (blue line) as the standard, you will face the same issue that the operations manager in the ice cream factory did. Doing so, you will lose opportunities for improvement. Setting the best situation as your standard (green line), will highlight all the gaps that can be improved upon. Where there are gaps (problems), there are opportunities for continuous improvement.


Problem Solving Graph Showing Actual Performance Against Time

Your company is a gold mine. Setting standards, identifying gaps, solving problems and making improvements, is the process of mining that gold.

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Ride sharing UBER
Uber has taken global disruption to a new level with their ride sharing platform

The recent Best Practice Network National Summit with its theme of “People, Technology and Business” has provoked a lot of discussion at TXM. Two key themes emerged for me. These are, the ways in which technology will transform how business is done and the way in which established industries will be disrupted by technology and other forces. David Platt provided particularly interesting insights in to the way industries are disrupted and will be disrupted in the future.

My summit presentation was on the theme “Does Industry 4.0 Mean the End of Lean”. This made me think hard about the way in which new technology is changing industry and the relevance of Lean in that context.

Finally, I was fortunate to go to the Innovate Expo recently in Geelong and hear from a range of interesting speakers on Industry 4.0 and innovation, including Gus Balbontin, former CTO of Lonely Planet.

So, What Does all this Mean for Lean?

I run a lot of Lean workshops and when I ask most groups “What is Lean”, they will generally tell me that it is about the elimination of waste. This is correct, but only part of the story. The problem with a focus on waste elimination is that it focuses us on the things that DON’T add value to the customer. Eliminating waste will save money and it will improve competitiveness, however it tends to assume that the value we add to the customer and the way in which we add it will stay the same.

When I consider companies that have disrupted established industries, there seem to be two common themes:

  • A unique or different insight in to what constituted value for the customer.
  • The use of technology to deliver that value more effectively.

Whether you think of the iPhone, Uber, digital photography or TripAdvisor the winner in disruption has understood the customer need better and then applied technology to better meet that need. In the process they have created more value for customers at lower cost. Businesses in these industries who were focused on improving existing business models and just “eliminating waste” found themselves being overwhelmed by the change brought on by the disruptors.

So How Do You Apply Lean Thinking in this New World Order?

First Understand Value

Another question I often ask workshop participants is “How do you create value for your customers?”. Surprisingly many people struggle to answer this. They tend to think in terms of their corporate goals so that “on time delivery” and “first time quality” are “value”. These goals, however laudable are simply measures of how well you do what you do.

In most industries today, delivering a quality product on time is simply taken as a given and does not confer any competitive advantage to the company providing it.

I often frame the question differently along the lines of “what is the customer buying when they buy your product?”. Again, I often get vague answers like “peace of mind” or “experience”. If you believe that is what your customer views as value, then expect to be disrupted.

In fact, the answer to the “what is value” question is closely related to the “what business are we in?” question.

TXM Article: What is a Value Stream Map

3d Printer
3d printers have risen in prominence in recent years.

The keynote I saw from Gus Balbontin, formerly of Lonely Planet brought this in to focus. Gus joined Lonely Planet at a difficult time, when it had just been purchased by BBC and was starting to be disrupted by the rise of the internet in the early 00’s.

At that time, Lonely Planet believed that it was in the travel books business. If you accept this definition, then every step-in converting paper and ink into a book and getting that book to the customer is a value-added step.

First, you would draw a value stream map for book production and distribution and try and eliminate waste from that flow. As a frequent traveller and one-time owner of many Lonely Planet guides, I believe that what customers valued from Lonely Planet was relevant and up to date information about the place that they were in.

Whether this was delivered through a smart phone or a travel book did not matter. In fact, the smart phone was a lot more convenient as the information was constantly up to date and took up a lot less space in the luggage than half a dozen travel books.

Now Lonely Planet is a great company and their travel books are still great. Their information is probably more accurate than the sometimes hit and miss reviews on TripAdvisor. However, it would seem that Lonely Planet have missed a massive opportunity to convert their position as a world leader in travel books in to a world leader in travel. A better understanding  of customer value might have delivered this transformation, but it is instead TripAdvisor that has achieved this change.

Likewise, newspapers and television thought they were selling their advertisers “access to eyeballs” and so pricing and availability was driven by the sheer numbers of people likely to see the content surrounding the advertising. Google instead provided access to buyers, dramatically increasing the cost effectiveness of advertising.

How to Apply this To Your Business?

I think the key to this is asking a series of questions about your business. The first are really strategic marketing questions.

  • “What business are we really in?”
  • “What is the customer need that we are meeting?”
  • “What is the problem that our customer has that our product or service solves?”

Answering these questions might involve asking customers, observing what competitors large and small are doing and looking for analogues in other industries.  Don’t rush it, be prepared to get advice from outside your industry.

TXM Case Study: Value Stream Mapping to Drive Lean Transformation

Once you have an understanding of this, then you need to ask my “Lean” question “What is it that we do in our business that adds value to the customer?”. This might be very challenging. In the Lonely Planet example, it would be arguable whether the book production and distribution process added any value at all in meeting the customer’s need of accurate and timely information.

Another question might be to ask, “Is there a better way to deliver this value to the customer?”. In this context look at available technology and how it could be used to meet that customer need. Insights from other similar industries can help.

Map the New Value Stream

Once you have defined what is value in your business, you can then define your new value stream and map your flow. This usually means defining a series of process steps. For each step you need to really challenge “Does this step add value, or can it be eliminated?”

TXM Article: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks of Value Stream Mapping

For example, if I was to map the flow for a taxi service a few years ago, the taxi owner and the dispatcher service would each have been seen as part of the value stream and each would have believed they were adding value. However, if I redefine the customer need from a “Taxi” to a “safe, convenient and cost-effective form of individual public transport” then the value of the taxi owner and dispatcher company becomes more dubious. Enter ride sharing platforms that connect the passenger directly with the driver and allow the passenger to rate every ride to ensure quality of service. So, challenge hard at every step in your process whether that step REALLY adds value in helping you meet your customer need.

Consider Technology in the Future State

In developing a future state, Lean coaches often assume that the key processes will remain unchanged, but instead the focus is on how product and services flow between processes and the waste that occurs there. In redefining your process to meet customer needs, you need to challenge the current technology and processes. Using a creative process such as “3P” can help you imagine different ways of delivering customer value, using new technology and applications. Ask questions like “What if we were able to…?” and don’t be quick to throw out “crazy” suggestions.

What you are then aiming to do is to design a new process from the ground up to deliver your product or service. This will include how the product or service will be created, how it will be delivered to the customer, the communication and information flows that will guide it through the process and the technology and process changes needed to make it all happen.

Move Fast and Be Prepared to Fail

Business is about taking risk, but in many cases, companies don’t reward risk. Instead they punish failure. As a result, employees tend to default to “the way we have always done things” because it is safer. In leveraging technology to change your business, you may have to face failure. Therefore, be prepared to try things, fail and learn. The mistake is if you don’t learn from your failures, not failure itself.

And What About Waste?

Re-designing your process from the ground up and focusing on how you create value will inevitably eliminate waste. When we eliminate a process step because it does not add value, we are eliminating waste.

Industry 4.0 is here. Don’t get left behind.

What about Industry 4.0?

The clear conclusion I arrived to at listening to the range of innovation speakers over the past month is that focusing on technology before you understand customer need is a recipe for wasteful investment. The companies that have transformed their industries have used technology as an enabler, not as an end in itself.

TXM Article: Does Industry 4.0 Mean the End of Lean

In fact, there is a risk that some industrial technologies risk making your business more vulnerable to disruption rather than less. For example, spending a lot of money to automate existing processes might lock you in to those processes. Likewise, heavy investment on process monitoring and optimisation might divert resources and focus from the need to completely change the underlying process you are trying to optimise. On the other hand, better process control through advanced optimisation or a lower cost base from automating, might enable you to compete in new markets where you were previously uncompetitive.


Predicting exactly where technology and social change will take us and our industries in the next few years is impossible. We have seen so many surprises in the past two decades, there are no doubt many more to come.

However, the Lean message of “start with the customer and work back” has never been more important. While eliminating waste will remain an important part of Lean Thinking, I am convinced that understanding and maximising customer value will be the key to success for businesses.

Lean Strategies for Uncertain Economic Times

If we were to choose one word to describe business conditions at the start of 2019, that word would be uncertainty. In Britain and Europe business is trying to figure out Brexit. The US faces a seemingly endless government shutdown and stagnating markets. China is dealing with the consequences of a trade war. While Australians face political uncertainty and a housing crunch. The consequences of all this is that we are experiencing the most uncertain times since the Global Financial Crisis a decade ago.

Stock figures for the year
Volatility in the market can be seen as a opportunity if you are positioned correctly to capitalise.

Too often the response of business in uncertain times is to do nothing and “wait and see”. This approach unfortunately means that the business is unprepared when the underlying direction of the economy (upwards or downwards) becomes clear.

Instead we recommend businesses take proactive steps during uncertain time to prepare them for whatever future conditions they might be facing.

Reduce Lead Time

The “father” of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, is once reputed to have said “all we are trying to do is reduce the lead time”. Which lead times do I mean? Every lead time! Obviously, the lead time from receiving inputs to shipping finished goods, but also design lead times, quote lead times and supplier lead times. When you reduce lead times in your business you bring your business closer to its customers. You then can respond more quickly to rapid changes in demand and meet those unexpected customer needs. Remember, if the economy slows, customers become more demanding as they usually have more choice of who to buy from. Therefore, reducing lead time now will give you a competitive edge that can protect your business in slow times and provide you an advantage if the economy improves.

Reducing lead times will free up cash by reducing the overall time from outlaying cash to purchase materials to receiving payment from customers. Inevitably this involves reducing inventory at every stage of the process. Working with suppliers to reduce order lead times is also the most effective way to reduce your inventory of materials.

To reduce your lead time, start by mapping your end to end process using the Manufacturing Agility Process® You will then understand the drivers of your lead time and can develop a future state plan to radically reduce it.

Increase Your Capacity – Without Capital Investment

Uncertain times mean that the risks around major fixed capital investment are increased. Therefore, taking steps to get the maximum out of your current equipment and facilities is one of the best ways to make your business more robust.

A Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) program based around improvement of your Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) is the best way to get more out of your assets without the need to invest more. Most businesses will find that when they honestly measure OEE that it is very low. However increasing OEE from 40% to just 50% represents a 25% increase in your available capacity. That can have a radical impact on your business.

Read How TXM increased OEE from 45% to 75% at a leading Pharmaceutical Plant

Another key strategy is to make the most of your facilities. Creating a Lean layout using the Facility Layout Development Process can free up at least 30% additional space in your current facility as well as delivering higher productivity as waste of motion and transport is eliminated. This extra space can then be used as room for growth if the economy improves or an opportunity to introduce another revenue stream if business slows.

Read How TXM Increased productivity by 25% by introducing a new layout and work cells.

Get Everyone Involved in Solving Problems

Cost reduction programs are often driven from the top down. This usually involves reducing people and breeds fear and poor morale. When times are uncertain you need your people engaged and on your site. Harnessing ideas at every level of the business and empowering people to make improvements can help you get both – lower costs and engaged people.

Your front-line people see how your business wastes money every day. Therefore, if you can get them to share these observations and even help fix some of the problems themselves, you can significantly reduce costs without anyone needing to lose their job.

The Lean Daily Leadership Process® provides an effective framework for leaders at all levels to engage their teams in improving performance. The Lean Daily Leadership Process® Methodology brings together three key elements:

  • Visual Workplace Management so that daily performance is recorded by front line leaders and displayed in the workplace so that every team can see how they are performing every day.
  • Ten minute daily stand up meetings where leaders at every level meet with their teams to briefly review daily performance, recognise success and highlight problems. The teams can then use simple problem-solving tools such as Solving Problems Every Day® to find and fix the root causes of many of these problems themselves.
  • Daily routine tasks for leaders creates a structured menu of activities that leaders need to perform every day. This ensures that leaders get in to positive habits that support and engage their teams, prevent problems (rather than fire-fighting them) and drive improvement.

Implement a Strategy Deployment Process

One of the biggest issues that businesses face when economic conditions change is that they are too slow to respond. While senior leaders may see the direction that the business needs to take, many lack the mechanisms to ensure that the rest of the business follows that direction.  For this reason, now is a good time to establish an effective process of strategy deployment.

An effective strategy deployment process based on A3 plans enables senior leaders to set a simple and clear direction. This can then be quickly and effectively cascaded through the organisation as each business unit or function develops their own A3 plan in response to the overall strategy. An effective strategy deployment process must also incorporate a “catch ball” process so that feedback can be given up the organisational structure. The strategy can then be adjusted based on this feedback ensuring that the strategy process is adaptive to market conditions and making sure that there is complete strategic alignment through the business. Once this process is established then, strategic change can be quickly communicated up and down the organisation in an effective and consistent way. This will enable your business to respond much quicker to any change in your market conditions.

Sign at T Intersection
Uncertain economic times need strategic decisions to be well thought out and clearly developed across teams to be effective.


Times are uncertain around the world, but “wait and see” is the worst possible strategy to respond to this uncertainty. Instead, apply some Lean thinking to increase the resilience and agility of your business. That way you can face whatever conditions that emerge from these uncertain times with confidence.

What is The Cynefin Framework?

Have you heard about The Cynefin Framework? You may well ask ”What are you talking about and how to you even pronounced the word “Cynefin”?”

Cynefin (kun-ev-in) is the Welsh word for habitat. The Cynefin Framework is a conceptual framework which was developed out of IBM during the early 2000s and has been labelled as a “sense-making device”. This framework has continued to evolve through the work of Dave Snowden and The Cynefin Centre.

The central idea of the framework is to offer decision-makers a “sense of place” to view their perceptions in dealing with a situation or problem. Not all situations are equal, and this framework helps to define which response is required for a given situation or problem.

It is an excellent model to help categorise the situation and assists in setting out how we can approach these different situations, explaining the characteristics of each category to help us recognise and define the current situation.

Having a good solution to a problem is great, but applying it in the wrong situation or context can lead to outcomes that are more complicated or harmful.

Making use of the framework can help structure the approach to finding the correct solution that matches the conditions of the problem. Then our more traditional problem solving tools can be used for the appropriate categories.

“Different problem situations warrant different approaches to find the right solution,” Snowden surmises.

There are four categories in the Cynefin Framework; Obvious, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic. The fifth sector, Disorder, fills the centre of the categories.

categorise problems with the cynefin framework

The Five Categories of The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin offer the opportunity to define any situation or problem into one of the five categories.

1. Obvious

Obvious (formerly known as Simple) is the category of Best Practices, and there is a direct relationship between cause and effect of the problem that can be seen by everyone. The right answer is obvious and undisputed within the group. This is the sector of best practices within your industry group.

Characteristics of the Obvious category are:

  • Clear cause and effect relationship are evident to everyone
  • A single, correct answer exists
  • A fact-based approach is required
  • The problem statement is understood, and solution is evident
  • Simple problem solving methods can be applied
  • The situation requires minimal expertise to resolve

2. Complicated

Complicated is the category where good practices can be found. Here there are multiple right answers, and expert diagnosis is required to figure them out. This sector demands a more quantitative approaches like Value Stream Mapping, and Six Sigma is particularly well suited.

Characteristics of the Complicated category:

  • Multiple right answers are available
  • A general idea of the known unknowns
  • You know the questions you need to answer
  • Don’t know how to obtain the answers
  • The problem is more predictable than unpredictable
  • Cause and Effect relationship is not immediately known but is discoverable given enough time

3. Complex

The complex is the category where solutions are discovered by developing a safe environment for experimentation. This experimentation allows us to discover important information that leads to the creation of new emergent solutions.

These problems are always more unpredictable than they are predictable. Hindsight can only tell us if there is a right answer as we explore the problem. Only with detailed experiments, inspections and results we can base decisions. The current results can then be used to define the next step toward a solution. In such situations our ability to probe (explore), sense (inspect) and respond (adapt) is critical.

Characteristics of the Complex category:

  • There are unknown unknowns
  • Even the starting point requires experimentation
  • The right questions to ask need exploration
  • The solution is only apparent once discovered
  • The sector of emergence ideas
  • Routine solutions don’t apply
  • Higher levels of interaction and communication are essential

4. Chaotic

Chaotic problems require a rapid response. When in a crisis there is immediate action required to prevent further harm and to return the situation to a normal environment. In this category we are not interested in starting investigations, data gathering and analysis work that leads to correcting the cause.

In this sector, the ability to act immediately and decisively to correct the symptoms is required, such as plugging the hole in hull of a sinking ship. For example, consider production defects; Your initial action is to quickly correct the problem creating the defect and then to contain the effects. This quick solution does not correct the underling cause, but containment is more important at this stage.

Characteristics of the Chaotic category:

  • The immediate priority is containment
  • The solution does not have to be the best, as response time is more important
  • Once you’ve stopped the leak, you can take a breath and determine which sector the problem fits into
  • Sector for novel solutions
  • No one knows what the answer may look like with certainty
  • Look for what works first instead of the right solution
  • Many decision to make, no time to think
  • Immediate action to reestablish order

5. Disorder

The disorder is the space in the middle. This category applies to those situations when you don’t know which of the other sectors to apply. This can be a very difficult place to be as you have no know idea how to sense the situation. Here you can see that people will be operating based on Firefighting mode, acting in line with personal preferences and not stopping to correct the situation.

The way to approach Disorder is to start breaking down the situation into smaller problems. Then reapply the problem to one of the four categories and work on a solution. Take the big rocks and make them into smaller rocks. Always be on the lookout for Chaotic problems as it is dangerous when problems are not addressed and there is no process is in place to correct it. Your priority needs to be to work on a way to move into a known category.

Characteristics of Disorder category:

  • If the problem or situation doesn’t fit in other the Four categories then it Disorder.
  • Fire fighting mode is common approach to dealing with the situation
  • Strong personal preferences are in place
  • No Time to correct the situation
  • Making do with a bad process

Defining Approaches with the The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework is a useful tool to help define a situation and to work out the best approach to finding the right solutions. Next we will look at different approaches that can be applied for each category.

Approach for Obvious problems:

  1. Problems are well known
  2. Sense the situation facts and gather data
  3. Categorise facts it into known groups
  4. Base responses on well-known solutions or established best practices
    implement and review solutions

Approach for Complicated problems:

  1. Assess the situation and Sense the problem
  2. Investigate several options
  3. Analyse large data groups, as needed
  4. Use experts knowledge to gain insight
  5. Use metrics to gain control
  6. Base response on good practice and
  7. Determine a course of action
  8. Execute the plan, following the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle

Approach for Complex problems:

  1. Explore to learn about the problem, as they require more creativity and innovative thinking skills
  2. Develop a theory and experiment to gather more knowledge
  3. Experimentation to discover patterns and gain more knowledge
  4. Repeat as necessary, with the goal of moving your problem into another category
  5. Execute and evaluate, following the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle

Approach for Chaotic problems:

  1. Someone needs to take charge and act
  2. Triage all actions
  3. Reach a level of measure of control
  4. Then assess the situation and determine next steps
  5. Take action to correct the cause by moving your problem to another category

Approach for Disorder problems:

  1. Gather more information
  2. Define Knowns and Unknowns
  3. Divide into parts and progressive move each part into another category
  4. Focus on the activity and not the person

Summing up The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework is an excellent model to assist in setting out how we can approach these different situations and also explains the characteristics to help us recognise the current situation. Once the situation is defined, the appropriate problem-solving approaches can be used.

This framework isn’t just useful in the domain of consultants and senior management types. As a general model, it is easily applied to all levels of your organisation and with this simple approach, great insights can be gain when applied. So when the correct approach is matched to the corresponding situation a higher level of success can be achieved.

Reference: Snowden and Mary E. Boone 2007 Harvard Business Review “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.”

As you and your company travel along the lean journey, the ability for your team to identify and take part in solving their own problems becomes important. What often surprises us is that as we make progress, more problems seem to arise, not less as we often expect. It’s not that those problems weren’t there before, it was that they were hidden amongst the noise of the daily crisis and high levels of inventory and general day to day angst.

Having said that, not all problems are the same and therefore don’t need the same approach. With only a hammer, everything will look like a nail, so you need a range of tools in your problem solving tool kit. Our lean tools help to highlight these problems by making them obvious and increasing the need to fix them, rather than continue to work around them. Having a robust, multi level approach to problem solving help to make problem solving more achievable

A Multi Level Approach to Problem Solving

Even the concept of multi level problems solving can be comforting; not only does it provide a scope to clearly define a range of practical approaches, it also makes it easier to train and engage your team, so they can solve problems that are relevant to them and at their level of concern.

trigger points for problem solving

A multi-level problem-solving approach may include, but is not limited to:

  • discussing top 3 issues from a previous shift at SOS meeting
  • small team 5 why’s to dig a little deeper into an issue
  • concern strips to document a problem
  • using a fishbone diagram to help focus your team’s brainstorming of possible causes
  • A3 problem solving when a project approach is needed

Problem Solving Trigger Points

Trigger points are your company’s “rules” around when to jump into problem-solving mode, and at what level. For example, small line stoppages may not be enough to warrant a problem-solving activity, but if these small stops are happening with increasing frequency, then it may be time to put some attention towards it. At the other end of the problem scale, major equipment failure may have occurred and you just need to get the lineup and running again; in this scenario, your team may need an A3 level investigation to identify the issues and investigate the most lies root cause. Having clear rules around when to jump into problem-solving mode and at what level will help your team be clear on what the company expectations are.

Each of the problem-solving levels your company uses needs to have a clear “Trigger” based on the functionality of your business and industry. You also need to consider who will be involved in problem-solving; when are the operators included? Or is it up to Engineering or Maintenance to determine what is going on?

How to Determine your Trigger Points

Trigger points to engage in multi-level problem-solving need to be developed with your product and support teams. What this looks like will be different for each company, depending on what industry you are in, how big your business is and how mature your team is with problem-solving.

At Toyota, an Andon light will be triggered when a problem can’t be solved within the defined time, often within a few minutes. For a continuous production line, a 30-minute downtime may trigger a 5 Why’s investigation. For industries with longer lead times, a 4-hour stoppage may highlight the need for further investigation.

To get started, determine a board guideline and then check to see how well your teams are going. The balance between making time to carry out a problem-solving activity and keeping production going will need to be discussed and negotiated. As your company matures through your Lean journey it will become clear that time spent solving problems with your team will provide a business return with reduced downtime and improve productivity.

Improving your ability to identify and solve problems efficiently becomes important as your lean implementation progresses. Having a multi-level problem-solving approach, along with clear trigger points, can help your team understand when they need to jump into “Problem Solving” mode.

Across the manufacturing sectors, we are living in a data-rich world, which is both a blessing and a curse. Data can take many forms and often changes as the needs of business change. At one end of the spectrum, we have hand-drawn, manually collected metric charts. These progress all the way to advanced MRP systems that can turn reports in visualisation resources to make graphs of anything you want, but too much data quickly becomes noisy and un-actionable, so which metrics do you need to focus on?

The importance of measuring has often been commented in the TXM articles and about what you should monitor from a systems perspective, but what about monitoring the creation of this information and data itself, in your operational performance? Once metric systems have been established we can start to share some specific metrics and guidelines that help our teams to measure and improve their operational performance by looking at how the data is collected and what trends these show.

This article will focus on the metrics and systems we create around Solving Problems Every Day (SPED) and Concern Strips as the key element of SPED.


What is the “Raw Incident Count” for concern strips

A spike or continuous upward trend in the number of concern strip actions a team creates tells you two things: either that team’s infrastructure has a serious problem, or their monitoring tools are misconfigured and need adjustment. Concern strip actions may rise as an organisation grows, but real concerns per team should stay constant or move downwards as the organisation identifies and fixes low-quality alerts, builds standards, automates common fixes, and becomes more operationally mature. When looking at incidents, it’s important to break them down by team or service, and then drill into the underlying incidents to understand what is causing problems. Was that spike on Wednesday due to a failed deploy that caused issues across multiple teams, or just a flapping monitoring system on a low-severity service? Comparing incident counts across services and teams also helps to put your numbers in context, so you understand whether a particular incident load is better or worse than the organisation average. this can also lead to tracking the numbers of open, progressing, close and those needing escalation.

documenting anexculation process is an important part of SPED

Measure Average Time to Resolution

Time To Resolution (TTR) is important for operational readiness and is measured when the concerns strip process is established with the team’s standard approach to problems solving. Understanding when the incident occurs and how long it takes for your team to fix it is a critical measure we can monitor. For example, downtime not only hurts your revenue but also the ability to meet customer delivery expectations, so it’s critical your team can react quickly to downtime incidents where concerns strips are raised. While time to resolution is important to track, it’s often hard to make this the normal practise in a company as they focus on developing the actions to correct concerns in the first place.

Investigating large differences in TTR helps with understanding the complexity of the production team environment, the way teams and support people are organised, types of industry processes, and potential impacts on a quality system. Then efforts can be directed to creating standardised work instructions, infrastructure automation, reliable alerting and escalation policies will all help drive the average TTR number down.

Measure Time to Response

This metric is often forgotten– the actual time to takes for a team to acknowledge and start work on resolving a problem. It is difficult to capture accurately  however the Time to Respond is important because it will help you identify which teams and individuals are prepared for being on-call. Fast response time is an indication that the culture of operational readiness is present, and teams with the attitude and tools to respond will have the attitude and tools to recover faster. Testing, direct observations and auditing can help understand what this time frame is or tracking the time it takes for the organisation to roll out a change in procedure – a good example would be safety alert or addition inspection checks.

While an incident responder may not always have control over the root cause of a particular incident, one factor they are 100% responsible for is their time to acknowledgement and response. Experienced teams have high expectations for their time to respond, and hold themselves accountable with the standards for response time that they, themselves have developed.

Dealing with Escalations

For many companies, having to agree on a manual escalation process can be difficult and hard to manage. An escalation is an indication that either a responder wasn’t able to get to an incident in time, or that they didn’t have the tools or skills to work on it. Often an escalation can be a normal part of the process such as the need to past new method through Engineering or Quality, for their input to solving team-based problems. Understanding your escalation procedure is a valuable part of concern strip management. Teams should generally be trying to drive the number of escalations down over time.

In Conclusion

Having your Problem Solving Every Day process well established, with the concern strips process running effectivity within your production team, these metrics indicate how your team are finding, responding and resolving concerns inter production areas. They can then be used to help your team refine their problem-solving skills.

If you need help with implementing your Problem Solving Every Day process, give your TXM Consultant a call. We LOVE solving problems!

By Anthony Clyne – TXM Consulting Director

Most of us, at some point in recent memory will have been subjected to a personality test. Most likely it will be the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI), which is the most widely used tool in this area. These tools are somewhat overused, but nevertheless can provide us with some useful insights in to our own personality and how we are likely to interact with other people and situations in our daily lives. So, is there a personality type best suited to solving problems and, more to the point, is there a personality type that is unsuited to solving problems??

MBTI evaluates personality in to four dichotomies or opposite pairs. These are:

Introversion – Extroversion

Sensing – Intuition

Thinking – Feeling

Judging – Perception

This provides a  total of 16 different personality types, depending on which end of each dichotomy the individual belongs. Expert assistance (from a clinical psychologist) is definitely needed to properly interpret the meaning of your personality type, however an example of how this might impact on the way problems are solved is that many Engineers are Introvered-Sensing-Thinking-Judging or (ISTJ). Broadly, this means that perhaps they are more comfortable with things and facts than people and emotions.

As lean consultants who constantly coach diverse teams in lean problem solving, we have found that everybody can solve problems effectively if they follow the process. Some people find it hard to follow the methodology. Awareness of your thinking preferences will help you be a better problem solver. For examples.

  • Our engineer, who is a High J’s (judging) may tend to jump to conclusions and are sometimes too unwilling  to Check and Adjust if they think they got the “right answer” the first time.
  • High F’s (feeling) look at the relationships and prefer a Senge type loop digram method, often bypassing the root cause.
  • High P’s (perceiving) tend to shortlist too many possible causes.
  • High I’s (introverts) will be task focused and go and try a fix while everybody is talking about the solution.

These factors an inherent biases are worth being aware of, however the bottom line is, follow the process and you’ll be fine. Having diverse personality types in your problem solving effort will give a quicker result. Using a robust system for problem solving such as TXM’s Solving Problems Every Day (SPED) will enable you to manage diverse personalities and still get to the root cause and a practical solution.

Click on this link to find a good explanation of MBTI (Which Myers Briggs Type Indicator) on Wikipedia
Another web page we have found provides some excellent commentary on personality types and problem solving. This simple page uses the Wizard of Oz metaphor used with great impact by Ian “Toto, We are not in Kansas Anymore.”

This metaphor has been around for a while – I first it used at the 1992 TQMI 2nd Conference.

The key to problem-solving is often not complex analytical techniques, but regular communication at team meetings such as this one and simple PDCA problem solving using 5 Whys and Concern Strips

Over the past year, we have noticed that some of the most popular blogs and Linked In posts that we have made have been around problem-solving. We see that businesses that have well-established processes for root cause analysis and problem-solving are the ones that really sustain and improve their lean production systems. That is NOT to say that you can create a lean production system just through implementing effective problem-solving processes, but rather that effective processes for Plan-Do-Check-Act problem solving are an essential element of any operational improvement system and the driver of continuous improvement in that system.

Read more about the Plan-Do-Check Act Cycle

So to start with you need to know exactly what the problem is that you are dealing with. Michelle Brown’s article on Defining the Problem is a great place to start.

Link to Learning to Define the Problem

Once you have defined the problem then the next step is to find the root cause and again Michelle’s article on one of the oldest and most popular root cause analysis tools, Fishbone analysis or Ishikawa Diagrams is a good place to start.

Link to Fishbone Diagrams to Solve Manufacturing Problems

However, there are lots of other analytical techniques to help you understand a problem and find the root cause. Some of them are introduced in our article on Analytical Techniques.

Read more about Analytical Techniques for Lean Manufacturing

As leaders in business, our behaviours as leaders can have a critical influence on how our teams improve and solve problems. TXM Senior Consultant, Rob Chittenden got some good tips on this from Michael and Freddy Bale’s latest book, The Lean Manager

Read more about the role of the Lean Manager in Solving Problems.

Importantly this article points out that “Problems are Good” as they give us opportunities to improve. Often an apparent lack of problems can mean that the “fat” in your business in the form of inventory, long lead times and excess labour and overhead can cover up everyday problems and deny you the opportunity to find and fix these issues. For example, big inventory buffers might mean that the poor reliability of a key process does not get noticed because the business never runs out of stock, or worse, excess inventory will be held as “insurance” against poor machine reliability. Excess labour can also hide quality and product design problems as operators spend their “spare” non-value added time reworking product.

It is important that problem-solving is a routine process in your business and not just a one-off event. At TXM we have developed our Solving Problems Every Day Process (SPED), This is a system that encouraged daily problem solving using simple “concern strips” at every work team.

Read More about Using SPED and Concern Strips  to Create a Robust Problem Solving Process

Read more about the “Logistics” of an Effective Daily Problem Solving Process

Getting started with daily problem solving is a challenge and takes persistence, but the results over time can be spectacular.

Read more about Implementing Daily Problem Solving.

Apart from delivering bottom-line benefits, an effective problem-solving process goes hand in hand with an effective lean production system. In my final recommendation, this blog shares some ideas from Steve Pressfield’s book, “Do the Work” about what it takes to get lean to stick.

Read more about Getting lean to Stick

I hope these articles provide some inspiration on your problem-solving journey. Subscribe to our RSS feed as I am sure that we will have more to say on the subject of problem-solving in 2013.

Learn More about Lean Problem Solving At TXM

Buy Problem Solving Concern Strips from our E-Store

Top Five Lean Manufacturing Techniques to Improve Quality

TXM’s Patented Solving Problems Every Day (SPED)

The lean revolution started around 30 years ago with the “Quality Movement” lead by the likes of W. Edwards Deming. Our understanding of quality has improved enormously over that period, as have customer expectations of quality. However at TXM our lean consultants still find companies, especially in Asia, that struggle to meet the challenge of first time right, every time. So what are the top techniques and tactics we have discovered to improve the quality of products and services?

1. Be Serious About “Quality First”

We all say it, “Quality comes first”, but do we mean it. Will we ALWAYS stop production before we produce more defects, are we ALWAYS confident that the product we are sending to a customer meets their requirements.

The concept of first-time quality or quality at the source is a simple one. That is, every process is responsible for their own quality and will not pass defects on to the next process or on to the customer. Achieving this is much harder.

In my experience, a common reason is that managers send out mixed messages. When product needs scrapping or rework or gets returned from the customer they will be frustrated and will lecture and even discipline operators for their “mistakes”. However when the pressure is on to meet sales or production targets or when the factory is behind schedule they will pressure the same operators to run machines that are not quite set up correctly, tell them to “run production and we will fix them at the end” or authorise a “borderline pass” when quality drifts outside specification.

Operators and teams are very good at detecting this kind of hypocrisy and will read it as a clear message that “management is not serious about quality so why should I be”. And they would be correct. Only when you are 100% consistent as a manager and prepared to stop the process to achieve quality will your teams see that you are actually serious and follow your lead.

2. Challenge 100% Inspection

If we are really serious about delivering quality to the customer we will inspect 100% of the goods, right? ….WRONG!

If we are really serious about delivering quality to the customer we will do everything we can to prevent the defects being created in the first place.

When a process is out of control (not capable of consistently achieving quality in specification) then we need to inspect products to attempt to prevent those defects from getting to the customer. Sometimes this inspection is mandated (such as with aerospace or pharmaceuticals) or the consequences of a defect are so high that inspection just makes sense (e.g. medical implants). However, this inspection should be seen as the absolute last line of defense and under normal conditions should find no defects (because they will be eliminated upstream).

Unfortunately, we often see (especially in Asia) 100% inspection being seen as a means to achieve quality. This does not work for a number of reasons. Firstly no inspector or inspection system is foolproof. If you have defects, you can be sure that some are getting to the customer, despite your inspection.

Secondly, the inspection acts as a “security blanket” often covering up poor maintenance, poor machine set up, inadequate operator training or process short-cuts. People upstream in the process know they can “get away with things” because the inspectors will “catch the problem” before it gets to the customer.

Thirdly inspection is very very costly. Add the cost of the inspectors wages, to the cost of the production they reject, the wasted production capacity (first making and then reworking the defective product), the cost of moving and storing defects  around the factory  and the delayed deliveries and you will quickly find that a relatively low level of defects can represent a very big chunk of your manufactured cost. Therefore the purpose of inspection (if you have it) is to find and eliminate the sources of defects. To quote a mentor of mine 25 years ago:

  • No inspection without recording.
  • No recording without analysis.
  • No analysis without action.

3. Solve Problems Every Day

The use of the TXM “Solving Problems Every Day(r) approach with concern strips was a key factor in the success in improving quality and OEE at Laminex.

We all hate having problems. We all want things to run “smoothly”. However, running “smoothly” in manufacturing usually means that we are not observing the everyday problems that affect our teams’ ability to achieve quality.

The Japanese lean coaches that taught many of the TXM team would say “no problems are a problem”, meaning that no problems mean that we are not challenging the current standard and trying to improve. My comments above about inspection hiding problems are a good example.

When something goes wrong we need to take that as an opportunity to find and eliminate the root cause. We think that problem solving should be part of the daily shop floor meeting of every team in your business and that everyone should be trained to use or participate in using simple problem-solving techniques such as “5 Whys” or “Cause and Effect Diagram.

We recommend simple magnetic concern strips to solve everyday problems and for more complex problems suggest an A3 problem solving or 8D approach. Use of complex statistical tools such as the design of experiments or components of variation analysis are rarely needed as most problems can be solved using very simple tools that everyone can understand. To learn more about TXM Solving Problems Every Day (SPED) visit our lean problem-solving page, read our other blogs on problem-solving.

4. Standardised Work

“If you don’t have a standard, how can you improve”. Standardised work is the most fundamental element of a lean production system. The first “rule” of lean is that “All work is standardised in terms of timing, content, sequence and outcome.”

This means that everyone does the same job the same way, with the same steps, in the same order and should get the same result in the same time. Standard work is not about writing a standard operating procedure, it is about engaging a team of employees in a discussion of how work is actually done, breaking down the steps and agreeing the best method.

This then becomes the standard and everyone in the team then agrees to follow this standard unless the team find and agree a better way. It sounds very simple and logical, but if you do things the same way every time, if operators are all trained in the same method, then you should get the same result. That is exactly how it does work.

When something goes wrong then, the first question is “what is the standard?” and then “did we follow it”. We can then quickly see whether the problem was caused by a deviation from standard (in which case we need to find out why) or some other cause (such as a material quality defect). Standard work is not just limited to production tasks but can apply to almost every activity in the business.

5. Andon

See also Andon- the Bright Lights of Lean Andon systems are simple signalling systems designed to enable an operator to quickly signal that he or she has a problem. The operator pulls a cord or pushes a button which triggers a visible and/or audible alarm.

The team leader is then required to respond to the operator to help with the problem. The problem then gets escalated further if the team leader cannot resolve it and production will cease in the meantime. This is again a very simple tool but incredibly powerful.

It entrenches the idea with the operator that they are not to pass on quality defect to the next station and empowers them to stop the line and raise the alarm if they have a problem. It also quickly re-aligns the priorities of the organization, focusing leadership on supporting the operator to achieve a quality outcome.

This is fairly challenging, but when adopted leads to a dramatic change. Our Master Sensei, Tony McNaughton, tells us that when Toyota took over a former GM plant in Australia, an Andon system was the first thing they installed – before any other capital investment.

Quality is one of the favourite topics for the TXM Blog. If you want to learn more look at some of these other articles or speak to one of our lean consultants:

To improve our problem solving skills we need to begin by clearly defining the “problem”. Firstly we must be able to do this ourselves and then coach others in the organisation to do the same.

How often do we hear Production problems in holistic terms, with all elements rolled into one statement – “there are no parts”, “the parts are no good”, “no on here knows what they are doing”. We need to develop our skills in taking these every day whinges and understand the real problem. Only after the real problem has been understood can we even start solving it.

So where to begin in really understanding and defining a problem?

using problem solving every day

Let’s get some facts by asking questions. If we are trying to understand why “the parts are no good”, we first need to know:

  • which parts?
  • what part numbers?
  • is this the only batch with this problem?
  • why are they “no good”?
  • which standard don’t they meet?
  • are they too big? too small? not the correct surface finish?
  • if they are too big, what does the drawing / spec require?
  • what is the tolerance on this dimension?
  • what is the difference between the drawing and what we have?

Once we have the answers to these question, we need to define our problem in words and facts that summarise all of this information. And those involved in the problem need to agree that this is what the problem actually is. If we can’t agree on the problem, you can bet we won’t agree on the solution as each person will be expecting a different problem to be solved, ensuring the solution won’t even work.

Now that we have clearly defined our “problem” we can begin our root cause analysis, using fishbone diagrams and the 5 why’s, to determine a correct action. Once implemented we can check to see how well this implementation worked. This also helps us to know how well we defined our problem in the first place – if the corrective action didn’t fix the problem we were trying to solve, where did our problem statement let us down? What other variables weren’t considered?

It is only through practice and checking on corrective actions that we have implemented that we can improve our problem solving skills and problem definition.

Deploying real Solving Problems Every Day needs everyone to be able to delve into a problems that can be clearly defined and understood by all involved. That is what learning to define a “problem” is all about.

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