Lean Transformations Group

When Problem Solving Is Just In the Air

For Lean to become transformational, management needs to create the conditions where problem solving is not a separate activity, but rather an essential part of everyone’s daily work.

When I talk about this with colleagues and clients, many people say, “Hold on, we are problem solving all the time!” But are you really problem solving? or are you just reworking things and adapting so that the system can still work without you ever actually solving the real problem?”

LTG partner Tom Shuker was part of an executive team from GM that had the opportunity to work at the GM/Toyota joint venture New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI). Tom’s lasting impression of working at NUMMI was that he loved to going to work every day simply because problem solving was just “in the air." When I talk with Tom about his experience, his face lights up. For Tom, working at NUMMI changed the way he thought about work.

More than anything else, what Toyota was able to create at NUMMI was a system of management—which managers brought over to the States from Toyota in Japan—that made meaningful problem solving simply part of the job. This is so different from the approach we see at the majority of U.S. organizations where problem solving feels like a special event or is directed by a special group that is really only a small subset of the organization’s workforce.

Why do I believe organizations tend to struggle so much with problem solving?

  1. No clear problem statement – Most leadership teams fail to take the first and most important step when it comes to creating a culture of problem solving: a clearly defined problem statement based on a measurable gap in performance of the organization’s primary value steam at the point of delivery to the customer. The same thing goes for other supporting value streams at their delivery point to the organization’s primary value stream.
  2. Problem Solving Happens in a Silo – Leadership teams so often assign responsibility for continuous improvement to a person, department, or trained specialist. Without clear direction as to the real organizational gap (core problem to solve) the party responsible for problem solving is left to measure improvement simply based on activity levels. For example, teams trained, events held, boards put up, areas that have been through 5S, centers of excellence visited, standard work documents written, etc. In some cases we see the responsible party select key performance indicators to track, but these KPIs are not usually relevant to the problem or the delivery of value to the customer. They also have little meaning to the people who are doing the work.
  3. Lack of Stability – And lastly, leadership teams too often ignore fundamentals like level demand, product mix, and equipment reliability. These are the things that create a stable environment for problem solving. Without paying attention to them, team members are left to spend most of their time working through what are essentially self-inflicted “problems” (that have nothing to do with solving a problem for the customer).

To arrive at a work culture where problem solving is just “in the air,” I believe team members to share two core assumptions:

  • Lean requires problem solving by the whole organization, with the health of the whole organization in mind.
  • The role of leadership is to create the conditions in which meaningful problem solving can take place.

What are these conditions?

  • Clearly defining problems to solve (not clear solutions to “implement”)
  • Establishing flow (information, work, materials, movement, etc.) to expose problems
  • Measuring and sharing information on “performance to purpose” (again, of the primary and support value streams as part of doing the work)
  • Creating a safe environment for employees to experiment

It’s important to note that by the time Tom went to work at NUMMI, Toyota had been perfecting their management system for at least 40 years. Toyota’s leadership team learned how to create a culture of problem solving as a result of working inside Toyota (following the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust) cycle of learning) and from studying flow productions systems outside Toyota (i.e. automotive, airplane, and ship building). Tom’s positive experience at NUMMI was a reaction to a system that leaders had consciously refined over time and that is continuing to be refined still.

This of course brings me to the last and most important point about organizational problem solving: Creating a meaningful problem solving culture takes commitment to continuous learning and consistency of approach!

Who can you call on in your team or organization to work with you to create both of these things?

Significantly improving your
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