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Mike Rother

Mike Rother: Is There a Difference Between Problem Solving and Kaizen?

By Mike Rother, - Last updated: Sunday, October 31, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Question:  What’s the difference between problem solving and kaizen?

In a recent post here on The Lean Edge, a friend and colleague suggests there is a technical difference between problem solving and kaizen, stating:

“Are you closing a gap to a known standard that was previously being met or are you raising the standard of a capable process? Each situation requires slightly different techniques and thought processes.”

He also points out that:

“In product development in contrast objectives might include making lighter engines which burn more cleanly and have less noise or vibration. Each department is different in this regard.”

Many people have said as much, myself included. But after my investigations of the last years I’m seeing things differently, and I’d like to propose the following hypothesis for discussion: At the mindset level, the above is not actually the case. Objectives differ, but the lean mindset is the same.

I propose that despite content differences from situation to situation, department to department and time to time, the fundamental way of thinking and acting at Toyota is the same whether you are talking about problem solving, process improvement, product development, conquering new markets or anything else. This makes sense too, for a simple reason. Since it takes practice to acquire a mindset, we don’t simply change our mindset, or toggle between different mindsets, as we move from situation to situation or department to department. Your mindset is a subconscious lens that tends to stay with you, and it takes deliberate practicing over a period of time to change it.

And applying one fundamental mindset is OK, as long as that mindset accepts uncertainty. For example, with regard to… “Are you closing a gap to a known standard that was previously being met, or are you raising the standard of a capable process?,” let me suggest that both of those situations are actually one and the same! Whether the process has not ever performed to standard or did perform to standard but is now not doing so, in both cases you are not yet there, i.e., not yet operating to standard.

Here’s the key point:  you will never be there. The concept that a process can be stable, can consistently operate to standard, exists only in our minds. It’s something we like to think is possible (a classic flaw of inductive reasoning). As a result, in the Western-Lean way of looking at it we think the occurrence of an abnormality means we have slipped back from something we had; that we need a “corrective action” to get back to it. But the Toyota-Lean way of thinking turns this around:  the abnormality means we are still not there, and we need to keep applying our improvement kata. As the following Zen proverb hints:

The student asks the master: “What work will I do as I seek enlightenment?” The master replies “Chop wood, carry water.” “And what work will I do once I achieve enlightenment?” asks the student. “Chop wood, carry water” replies the master.

It seems logical to assume that these two different mindsets — these two different responses to uncertainty — would produce two different ways of managing.

This does give rise to a dilemma with regard to kaizen, because if you never arrive at a target condition 100% — since a certain degree of problems is inherent in any system — then when is it time to set the next process target condition to strive for? It’s unlikely that a process can ever be 100% stable.

Proposal:  You always need a target condition to strive for. If you reach a state where you are only reacting to deviations and abnormalities, what Shewhart and Deming called common-cause variation, rather than still striving for something, then it may be time to define the next process target condition. There will always be Andon pulls and we need to react to each of them of course, but if you are only reacting to common-cause variation then the second law of thermodynamics — entropy — comes stronger into play and the process naturally degrades. As far as I can tell, a process is either being improved or slipping; there’s not much middle ground. Deming brought this up as well:

“Quality of a product does not necessarily mean high quality. It means
continual improvement of  the process, so that the consumer may depend
on the uniformity of a product and purchase it at a low cost.”
— W. Edwards Deming, 1980

Most target conditions do not have to be huge challenges. It is only important that you have something you are striving for as part of your workday, something that orients you in a direction. And it is also important that you are taught an effective improvement kata for how to work toward a target condition.

These are the concepts I study in depth in my latest book, Toyota Kata.

Mike


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