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Defining Problems?

defining problems

Our previous few posts have focused on identifying waste.

After an area of waste or an opportunity for improvement is identified, the next step is to define the specific problem. Few decisions have a greater impact on the likelihood of success of an improvement project than the definition of the problem.

For example, Stephen Covey says that the way we see the problem is the problem. Albert Einstein warns that we cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking with which we created them. The way we define and communicate the problem the team is expected to solve will greatly influence the speed and efficiency with which a team will complete its work, the degree of satisfaction between the team and the project sponsor, and the efficacy with which an organization prioritizes and sequences the problems to devote resources to.

Consider these different approaches to defining the same problematic situation:

  • Order fulfillment is too slow and is costing us a lot of business.
  • Our lost sale rate has increased from an average of 125 per month over the previous six quarters to 190 per month this quarter.
  • Our Order-to-Delivery timeline has increased to 60 days due to a bottleneck in packaging.
  • Profits are down.
  • Sales has missed their target for the past three months.
  • Packaging is too slow due to old equipment.
  • Order-to-Delivery time from the Mid-western plant in Q3 increased by 15 days over the same quarter prior year, and was cited as the cause of 42 lost sales in Q3 impacting revenue by $270,000 in the quarter.

Some of these are statements of fact, while others are judgments. Some are very broad and others are very specific.

They may ALL be valid observations about the same situation, yet the problem solving efforts they would guide would differ greatly in urgency, efficiency, and efficacy. Developing a good problem statement at the start will help you define and lead an improvement project that most efficiently arrives at better results.

In our next post we’ll share four best practices for defining problems.

Waste Walk Perspective

As noted in our previous post, gemba or waste walks are effective ways of identifying waste and opportunities for improvement. Generally speaking, efforts-to-date have primarily taken place in manufacturing, warehouse or shop-floor environments; and certainly there is much to be gained by “going to gemba” in these areas.

For example, during one waste walk n a manufacturing area, those involved focused on process constraints, and identified several bottlenecks and, ultimately, solutions that increased overall capacity; in another similar setting the gemba team was able to separate value added work from that which was non-value added, and then created data images to document the changes they believed would maximize the former and eliminate the latter.

Taking a slightly different twist, one manufacturer’s gemba team pre-selects a theme each month, such as safety or process inefficiencies, and during the walk they search for activities or process steps that impact the theme.

However, while waste walks are most often put into practice within the above mentioned areas, many that take place in other organizational areas have proven most worthwhile.

For example, a supply chain management company used waste walks as a way of solving a recurring order-processing problem that had become a hot issue with one of their mid-sized customer locations. They involved a number of their team members, including representatives from management, customer service and their CI group. It worked out so well that they now do waste walks at customer sites on a regular basis. Not only do the teams solve problems and make design changes in ways that benefit both parties, but their relationships with these customers have also grown significantly, which has boosted revenue and customer retention.

Based on the success of gemba or waste walks at customer locations, the company has recently started conducting them with suppliers, and anticipates similar positive results.

Other companies send their employees to observe how their customers use their products and to look for complexities, errors, of troubles that the products cause the customers. Having done that, the employees are able to go back to their own gemba and see more opportunities for Improvement.

In the retail sector, one company conducted a series of waste walks during their inventory season, watching and documenting the process at different stores. While some best-practices were certainly documented during the waste walks at the top performing sites, the greatest gains were made during waste walks at the stores in which performance was traditionally mediocre, where, as a result of the initiative, average cycle time was cut in half!

Even though waste walks are used less frequently in areas where the work is less visible, such as administrative offices, purchasing departments, and R&D labs, some of the greatest opportunities reside in these places. When the work is less visible, the gemba or waste walk team needs to ask many more questions of the people doing the work in order to learn what they are doing and to gain valuable insights.

Identify Waste by Going to Gemba

identifying waste

As you may know, “Genba,” which has been popularized as “Gemba,” is a Japanese word meaning “the real place.”

The word is widely used in Japan, where detectives frequently refer to a crime scene as genba, and Japanese TV reporters often refer to themselves as reporting from genba/gemba.

In the business realm, gemba refers to the place where work is done and value created. For example, in manufacturing gemba is typically the factory floor, but looking further afield it can be any location — a construction site,
administrative office, or sales bullpen — where the actual work is being done.

When it comes to Continuous Improvement, problems are most visible in these areas, and the best improvement ideas will come from going to gemba. If your objective is to identify waste, there is no substitute for ‘going to the work’ and there are things that can only be learned by going there and watching the work with a purpose.

Thus a gemba walk, or waste walk, is an activity that takes management and other stakeholders to the front lines to look for waste and opportunities for improvement; to observe the work where the work is being done, and to identify what goes wrong or could go wrong, how often it does or could go wrong, and the associated consequences. The waste walk is designed to help everyone understand the value stream and its problems; it is not to review results and make superficial comments.

Aside from identifying waste and the specific gains made during waste walks, there are also higher-level benefits associated with the practice:

  • Engagement: Since people at all levels are involved, and since the waste walks have proved to be an effective method of detecting hard-to-identify problems as well as solutions which improve both productivity and day-to-day quality of work life, a noticeable increase in workforce engagement is a common by-product. People like it when problems they have known about for a long time are finally solved!
  • Trust: Company leaders are able to establish greater levels of trust with the people closest to the work, by showing interest and seeking the opinions and input of those doing the work.
  • Learn the Truth: Going to gemba enables leaders to identify reality versus what they think (or hope) is happening. Waste walks help leaders to question their assumptions as well.
  • Better Ideas: When the people who are doing the work or executing the process every day start talking, thinking and feeling empowered, the ideas really flow…
  • Ask the Right Questions: as suggested in an earlier post, questions are often the “answer” to making breakthrough improvements. However, the quality of those questions is the key! Getting the data and seeing it for the first time based on direct observation is powerful; and then if you can get customers, suppliers and company personnel working through the chain, the quality of questions that surface promote more innovative and accurate solutions.
  • Improvement vs. Habit-forming Execution: The combination of fresh eyes, diverse perspective, amnesty, and a collective, sincere interest to eliminate waste and continually improve the work process tends to bring about real, often outside-of-the-box solutions; true Improvement versus dong things the same way.

Identifying Waste?

waste is often the elephant in the room that nobody sees

As suggested in our previous post, our approach to Continuous Improvement (CI) has always involved a focus on the waste, as opposed to simply focusing on ‘improvement’.

What’s the difference?

Most of the big waste is hidden in plain sight — long-standing business practices that compensate for a problem that has not yet been solved. The root causes of the problem have not been addressed, and instead, compensating steps have been built in to avoid bad outcomes such as poor quality or lost productivity.

Compensating for Unsolved Problems
For example, a maintenance organization for a power plant “walks down” each preventive maintenance job to make sure the instructions are clear and the parts are available. A financial services company sends every transaction to “QC” for inspection and corrections. A financial services company sorts all of the transactions by client and by transaction type before processing them. Inventories are built up just in case, and long production runs are scheduled to avoid long set up times. Each of these is compensating for and masking an underlying problem that has not been addressed.

In fact, whenever you find yourself trying to find the best trade-off between two evils), you can be sure that you are masking underlying root causes which, if addressed, would lead to breakthrough business improvements. Nearly all the breakthroughs of the past forty years are a result of seeing waste and addressing the underlying causes where the competitors simply saw standard operating procedures.

The secret to doing better than the “optimum” is in surfacing and addressing the hidden assumptions.

Optimization is the process of evaluating the “trade-offs” between two things that seem to be in conflict. For example, as you increase inspection, you increase costs but you decrease the defects that get through. If you shorten your production runs, you can reduce your inventory but your production will decrease because change-over time required to change machines from producing A to producing B means more downtime. With optimization, you try to find the exact point that minimizes the total cost.

But every optimization problem has some “givens.” Taiichi Ohno, creator of the Toyota Production System, and his followers achieved breakthroughs by shifting their focus from finding the best “trade-off” to working on these “givens.” When we talk about “root cause” analysis, we mean to focus on those “givens” or “underlying assumptions” that cause you to try to find the path of least waste. Once you find and address the underlying cause, assumption, or given, you can find and move to an optimum that is at a totally new level! And more room for improvement opens up as you make more progress on the “givens.” Instead of diminishing returns you have expanding opportunities!

But people are most often risk averse. It is very uncomfortable and difficult for most people to acknowledge waste before they can envision a solution for it. An organization will not embark upon a sincere search for waste without strong leadership questioning why, encouraging and rewarding the identification of waste, and challenging conventional wisdom.

The ability to recognize waste is a rare and valuable skill and it grows with practice. Senior management needs to nurture the practice if it is to take hold within the organization. Until an organization recognizes the waste for what it is, there will be no full court press to eliminate the underlying problem.

3 Proven Steps
If you’re wondering how your organization might nurture the ability to recognize the waste embedded in your business processes, here are three suggestions for getting started:

  • Constant questioning. Ask yourself and everyone else if you would need this if everything were right, and right the first time.
  • It sometimes helps to bring in outsiders to help you look for waste, because it is easiest to think “outside the box” if you are “outside the box.” Customers and suppliers or people from adjacent processes may challenge assumptions we don’t even realize we are making.
  • Benchmarking internally, within the industry, and in different industries can also raise questions and help you recognize waste that you have overlooked before.

The Case of Improvement v. Waste

waste

Former Red Sox star Ted Williams is considered the greatest hitter in baseball… His .406 batting average for the 1941 season is legendary, and he finished his playing career with a .344 overall average, 521 home runs, and a 0.482 on-base percentage — the highest of all time.

A newspaper reporter once said to Ted, “Gee Mr. Williams, you’re the best batter the game has ever seen — you must be a great student of hitting.”

Ted replied, “No sir, I’m a great student of pitching!”

Just as there is a difference between focusing on hitting versus pitching in baseball, there is a big difference between focusing on “improvement” versus “waste” in the Continuous Improvement arena.

As many CI leaders know, and as Ted Williams knew, seeking solutions to the latter in both of these instances is the key to achieving breakthrough results in the former.

In other words, it’s the understanding of what waste is and how to search for it, that makes all the difference. In fact, if your implementation of Continuous Improvement is simply to look for ideas for improvement, you will follow a road of diminishing returns. But if you search for WASTE, regardless of whether you already have a solution, you can delve into the underlying causes to make truly important improvements. And with each
significant transformation, new opportunities will come into view. Recognizing waste is a matter of vision, and vision is the starting point of real business transformation.

In our next post we’ll share ideas on identifying waste.

Before Launching an Improvement Project…

preparation

As a final installment to this short series of posts about increasing the likelihood of an improvement project’s success, it’s important to recognize the importance of up-front work.

Effective planning, even before the launch, was emphasized as critical to success during a discussion with our Partners in Improvement. Some of the key components of this planning include defining the right problem statement, scope, timeframe, and team.

One of the Partners explained that, in his organization, all project charters are required to go through a rigorous review by corporate as well as visiting the location and team beforehand to get the specifics and facilitate good communication.

Another emphasized the importance of having a charter, no matter how simple the project, that sets out the timeline. The charter should clearly identify why we are here and what the target date for completion is. This is hard to predict at the outset when the team has much to investigate, but it is important to have a vision of an end point not too far in the future to keep the scope tight. Set near-term milestones.

Similarly, one organization has implemented the practice of having the team leaders circulate problem statements to other experienced leaders before they start and ask the others to take shots at it — identify where the gaps are, where it lacks specificity in a way that will make it more difficult to define a tight scope. Identifying these hazards up front is likely to make the project more expedient and successful.

Most importantly, and as all of our Partners agreed, managing scope is a must for speed and success.

Apply the Pareto mentality (backed up, of course, with Pareto data), to focus on the 20% of the problem that will provide the biggest bang for the buck. One of the most common causes of slow results is failure to decide on a tight scope that can be addressed within 8 to 12 weeks. Often one needs to gather and study some data in order to decide on a narrow scope, and this often should be done before launching an improvement project. Sometimes a small group may be convened to quickly gather and study the data so that an appropriate improvement team can be launched.

The Bottom Line Summary
To sum it up, in order to ensure on-going success an organization must make sure that its measurement systems, rewards, recognitions, and communications systems support CI.

But more than that, one must make sure that management behavior itself supports CI.

8 Ways to Increase the Success Rate of Improvement Projects

Continuous Improvement

Our previous post shared a number of reasons why so many improvement projects fail or fall short of expectations.

Fortunately, there are a number of solutions to prevent the
downward spiral that can so easily plague improvement efforts, which we discussed during a meeting with our improvement Partners. These principles include the following:

Success! The first principle for making a project successful is simple: nothing succeeds like success. So start out with carefully selected projects staffed with highly qualified people to ensure they are successful. Give the earlier projects careful guidance and support. One of our Partners described an initiation process which started with 10 carefully selected and well trained individuals. They put five on one project and five on the other. Once those projects were complete, they launched five more improvement projects with two of their 10 trained leaders per project. This plan was designed to ensure early successes.

Communication About Success. The second principle is “advertising.” If a team applies the CI methodology to great success but no one hears about it, the methodology as “the way we do things around here” will be slow to catch on. Newsletters, presentations, story boards and discussions at staff meeting and water coolers are all ways to communicate success and make sure that everyone learns from it and is ready to try for some more.

Speed to Results. But an organization will not have many successes to advertise, if it does not make speed to results a priority. Once you start an improvement project, make sure that the project manager and the team run like heck to finish it. The more demanding the environment and more rapidly new challenges arise, the more critical it is that every effort be on the fast track to completion — before something arises to change priorities.
To the extent possible, compress the cycle time to results. Use Kaizen events and focused teams to tackle manageable chunks in short time frames.

Data. Use data to really understand the current reality and to test theories about underlying causes. The data will help you minimize the red herrings and wrong turns. People will want to substitute opinions for data because that is the way they have always worked. But the facts and data will help the team zero in on the real cause and the best solution more quickly than trial and error based on opinion. One of our partners observed that people will often create a flow chart, but then fail to get the facts about the process. A flow chart is just one step and is not really complete until it has been validated and populated with real data.

Keep It Simple. Keep the data analysis as simple as possible. Complicated is not necessarily better and it is almost always slower! A great deal can be learned from Pareto charts looking at the data from different angles — to rule out or confirm theories about the underlying dynamics and relationships.

Management Support. Pay attention to the soft side, making sure that management meets with the teams and individuals regularly. One CEO meets one-on-one with his leaders once a month and the sole topic is how the improvement project is going and what can he do to speed progress. Lots of visibility and encouragement for people working on systematic improvement helps to maintain interest, enthusiasm, and momentum.

Team Enthusiasm. One CEO lets his team leaders pick the project — focusing on what really ‘frosts’ them. This gains the enthusiasm for the work and results in quick wins.

Team Training. Most Partners believe that nearly everyone in the company needs some basic training. But team leaders need to be very well trained, so that they can ensure that the team follows the methodology, asks the right questions, gathers the right data, stays on track, and keeps the interest and engagement of the rest of the team. Choose team leaders very carefully.

In addition to the above-listed solutions for running an effective improvement initiative, there are several things that an organization can do before launching a project that can increase the likelihood of success. These best practices will be the subject of our next post…

Why Improvement Initiatives Often Fail

brick wall

During a discussion with several of our improvement partners, it was noted that approximately 80% of the time Continuous Improvement efforts fail or are abandoned prior to achieving their potential.

We also discussed a set of barriers that could lead to failure, which included:

  • Low aim, poor advance planning or scoping
  • Lack of data during the planning stage
  • Lack of buy-in from management
  • Lack of buy-in from participants
  • Lack of management support, which is required to free up the resources to work on improvement
  • Lack of progress due to ineffective or inconsistent execution. The slower the effort moves, the more likely it becomes that priorities will change, new opportunities or problems arise that decrease available resources further.
  • Poor meeting management, causing slower progress.
  • Participants need for skill development

A number of solutions to the above-listed challenges were also discussed, which will be the subject of our next post.

Are Questions the Answer to Making Breakthrough Solutions?

questions

An article published in 2020 as part of the Drucker Forum’s “shape the debate” series raised some interesting perspectives about leadership and making breakthrough improvements.

The simple premise shared by consultant and author John Hagel is that “questions” are the answer.

“The most effective leaders of the future will be those who have the most powerful and inspiring questions,” Hagel said. “…and who are willing to acknowledge they don’t have the answers, and that they need and want help in finding the answers. It’s in sharp contrast to the conventional view of leaders as the ones who have the answers to all the questions.”

This view aligns nicely with ours, as we’ve found that posing questions of and involving the people closest to the work is the shortest path to the largest gains.

After all, where do new ideas that lead to lasting solutions come from?

They come from people… that is, if those people are asked.

Here are three different approaches to identifying new ideas and solutions along with some of the questions we might ask the right people while studying the related work:

  1. Classic brainstorming. When studying the current situation and causes does not lead directly to identifying lasting solutions, you need to elicit a number of different ideas from your team by asking questions that stimulate creativity. How can we increase our productivity by 10 percent? What are the most common obstacles causing the process to stall? What is the most difficult aspect…”

    Before you launch into your brainstorming, make sure you have convened a diverse group of people with some knowledge or interest in the problem at hand. Keep in mind that it is always easier for people to “think outside the box” when they come from outside the box.

    The classic rules for brainstorming are:
    • No criticism of ideas—no idea is too crazy
    • Go for quantity of ideas and worry about quality later
    • Brainstorm individually first and then read the ideas out round robin style it is okay to pass
    • Build on positive aspects of other ideas to create new ideas
    • Capture the ideas on flip charts or on large Post-Its that everyone can see and read
  2. Tools such as the Six Thinking Hats and Heuristic Discovery, which systematically change one’s perspective to open-up new possibilities for solving problems.
    • First, state the problem in terms of an opportunity or goal. For example, a keyboard refurbishing operation needed to increase throughput, so they would ask: “How to we double our daily throughput of refurbished keyboards?”
    • Second, create a picture or map of the problem as part of the system, labeling each of the significant components.
    • Third, describe the impact of each component as it impacts the goal. Use a question format. For example:
      • What tools might we use to increase throughput?
      • How can we make sure that people’s skills are sufficient to double the throughput?
      • How can we make sure that people’s speed is sufficient to double the throughput?
      • How can we ensure the workspace layout enhances throughput?
    • Fourth, Prioritize these and generate ideas for solutions to the component problems that are most likely to impact
  3. Imagineering perfection, which helps you surface possibilities to leap past incremental improvements…
    • “What would this process look like if everything were right?”
    • What would it mean if the input we need always arrives on time and exactly the way we need and want it—no delays, no expediting, no rework?
    • What if every step of the work process were to go exactly as it should with no waste, no rework?
    • What if our work produced exactly what the customer needs, on time, exactly as they require it all the time? What would this look like?
    • What exactly does the customer need for perfection?

Implementing a New Year Strategic Plan?

implementation

In a 2018 post we noted that an organization can have an excellent strategy but make little-or-no gains if they fail to execute effectively on that strategy.

It was also noted that this happens in a great many instances, as people at all levels frequently struggle to stay-the-course when it comes to achieving goals, keeping resolutions, or executing strategic plans. Instead, they fall prey to “working so hard on the urgent that they forget about what’s really important.”

Since we are about to begin a New Year, and since many organizations have, in fact, created a strategic plan for the upcoming year, it seems an ideal time to re-share and reaffirm the fact that “planning” does little good without execution. Fortunately, there are solutions!

The Four Disciplines of Execution, an insightful book written by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling, shares one of these solutions.

As you may know, the ‘Four Disciplines’ comprise a management system of making consistent and systematic progress on executing plans and achieving goals. An organization can have an excellent strategy but fail to execute effectively on that strategy. Almost always the reason is that everyone is BUSY, and that they experience a conflict between all of the demands to keep the business running on a day to day basis (the ‘whirlwind’) and the time required to move the organization forward to accomplish existing or new goals!

The book identifies four key elements of execution that can help any organization achieve steady progress on the strategic objectives:

The first discipline is to focus on the “wildly important” (WIG—Wildly Important Goals). It is suggested that we’re better off executing a small number of goals right instead of spreading ourselves too thin. It is also important to not only identify, but also communicate exactly what these wildly-important goals are so that everyone is working on what matters. Equally as important, each of these goals must be associated with a targeted completion date – in other words, they must be time-based.

The 2nd discipline is to set (and act upon) lead measures. While lag measures tell you whether or not you have achieved your wildly-important goals, in most cases, by the time the results are in, it’s too late to do anything about them. Lead measures are predictive; they tell you how the lag measures will move, and they are “influenceable” (you can do something about them).

For example, a person might set an important goal of losing weight. The lag measure will be to take periodic measurements of weight. But to influence the weight goal the person must act on the lead measures: exercise (calories burned) and calories consumed.

The 3rd discipline is to keep a compelling scorecard. The scoreboard shows the lead measures and lag measures defined in the first two disciplines. This scoreboard must be ‘a players’ scoreboard’ not a ‘coach’s scoreboard’. It must support, guide, and motivate the players to act effectively on the lead measures and influence the lag measures.

People play the game differently when they are keeping score, and they play differently if they are keeping the score themselves! In fact, the action of recording their own results has proved to have a strong effect on people ― fostering ownership, engagement, and a deeper appreciation of the impact of their effort.

In addition, there are four important requirements to creating an effective scorecard that will truly promote execution and engagement:

  • The scorecard must be visible. If it is out of sight, on your computer or on the back of the door, it is less effective at aligning the team to focus on moving those measurements.
  • It must be simple, showing only the data required to ‘play the game’ ― to let the players know how they are doing day to day.
  • It must show both lead and lag measures.
  • It must show “at a glance” how the team or players are doing.

The 4th discipline is to develop a “rhythm of accountability.” This is the discipline that enables you to win… without a rhythm or cadence of accountability, teams will have a much more difficult time and will tend to become less engaged. The threat, of course, is that the whirlwind of running the day-to-day business that will consume all the available time.

By setting a rhythm or cadence the authors mean an inviolable regular schedule to which everyone is committed. For example, teams should meet every week or every two weeks as opposed to “whenever something comes up.” It’s also best to schedule the meetings at the same day and time each week or every-other week. These meetings should never be canceled ― they must be viewed as important and productive, thus promoting strong feelings of belonging, commitment, productivity, and accomplishment, which are all drivers of engagement.

As noted in the book, “without accountability, the whirlwind will win!”

Like many things in life, these elements are simple but not necessarily easy… but they do enable an organization to more easily achieve important goals in the face of the whirlwind.