Lean Problem Solving and Culture Change


September 1, 2019
By Darren Dolcemascolo

 Lean thinking is all about providing the customer with a defect free product and/or service when the customer needs it and in the right quantity.  This is accomplished through the elimination of waste.  So, where does problem solving fit in?  Problem solving is the DNA of lean and kaizen.  We might say that engaging everyone in the process of problem solving is what lean culture change is all about.

How does this work? There are many problem solving methodologies, and there is some variation in the steps even between what lean practitioners call lean problem solving.  However, all good problem solving methodologies are similar in that they begin with properly defining and understanding the problem, they proceed through the identification of critical causes, they work to then identify countermeasures to address the causes, and then they involve planning, experimenting, and implementing solutions.  Finally, they work to sustain and continuously monitor results.

Let's begin with the first basic step- identifying the problem.  What is a problem?  A problem is a gap between the current condition and target condition or standard.  For example, we are unable to meet a required lead time.  We are currently averaging 4 weeks while our target is 2 weeks.  Our problem statement might be: "Product XYZ lead times are currently averaging 4 weeks over the past 6 months.  Our target condition is to achieve a 2-week lead time within 60 days from today."  A problem can be high-level (e.g., not meeting planned revenue) and strategic or it can be front-line level (e.g., defect on a part or error on an invoice).

After we understand the problem through observation (i.e., going to the gemba or where the work happens) and review of data, then we can begin identifying potential causes or obstacles that are preventing us from reaching the target or standard.  We can use multiple tools to do this, but it boils down to more observation and data collection.  For lead time reduction in our example, we might use value stream mapping to identify what the key obstacles are.

After we have performed the necessary analysis and experimentation to determine what the critical obstacles or causes are, we can begin identifying and testing countermeasures to our causes.  These countermeasures may or may not involve lean tools (such as 5S, quick changeover techniques, etc.).  After testing our countermeasures, we plan and implement them while evaluating their effects on our metric.  Finally, we put in place ongoing controls to sustain our improvement.  These involve monitoring and having a response plan in case something goes wrong- this can be accomplished through daily management.

This is lean problem solving in a very small nutshell.  It is based on PDCA:

1. Plan: This includes everything from identifying the true problem through identification of causes through identification of countermeasures.

2. Do: This includes testing and implementing countermeasures.

3. Check (or Study): This involves evaluating the effectiveness of the countermeasures on the key metric(s).

4. Act/Adjust: This involves adjusting as needed based on our evaluation and putting in place sustaining controls.

Kaizen, or continuous improvement, is all about problem solving- getting from current condition to target condition using a systematic approach.  Learning and applying this approach on a continuous basis is how a lean culture is created.  Is everyone practicing problem solving?  Are they being coached by someone more experienced than they are?  If this is happening in your organization, then you are at least on the right path toward creating a lean culture- a problem solving culture.

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