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Jeff Liker

Dan Jones: Lean problem solving and teamwork

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Friday, May 27, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

There is more to problem solving and teamwork in a lean organisation. This was brought home last week during another Gemba walk through a plant making fast moving consumer goods. As we snaked our way past a maze of hoppers, ovens, pipes and packaging lines it became clear than nothing was visible at all, to me or to the managers accompanying me. I kept asking what was today’s plan, were they behind or ahead, what were the biggest problems and what actions were they taking to address them. The managers I was with could only answer these questions by going back to the office to check on their computers! Yet this is one of the best performing plants in the group.

The operators were quick to show me that they had all the necessary data in their computers on the line to analyse and solve their own problems, and they were obviously experienced and just wanted to be left alone to do so.  A separate team of technical experts from quality, engineering, maintenance etc met on a daily basis in a room upstairs. Each of them brought their files of information with them and took them away again after the meeting. The uptime record of the plant was good so management left them to it. Management of course also had access to all this data but focused on high level performance and budgets, and did not regularly walk the Gemba.

While there is no visibility there is also no dialogue. The prevailing attitude was tell us what you want and which metrics you are going to measure and reward us by and leave us alone to get on with it. A classic management by objectives environment that was obviously working for them. Until I arrived asking difficult questions about how they focused efforts to tackle their biggest problems if they remained invisible, how they could make their value streams flow across departments if they never talked to each other and so on. They became even more uneasy as we talked about making small batches in line with demand and creating a series of rapid replenishment pull loops back from the end customer. But their ears perked up again as we talked about creating a stable schedule rather than changing the plan every lunchtime to cope with shortages!

You need three things to really solve a problem. First an understanding of the context of the problem that tells you why it is important to solve it. Second a detailed knowledge of the actual work to be done and third the right tools and knowledge to solve the problem. No one person or group has all of these perspectives, which is why working in teams with clear sight of the facts creates the right dialogue to get to the root causes and propose a series of countermeasures.

In a lean organisation this dialogue needs to happen in three different dimensions. First up and down the organisation to build agreement and focus actions on the vital few. Second horizontally along each of the main value streams to remove obstacles to flow. Third across departments to synchronise their activities with these flows and to address common problems. A3 thinking provides the common PDCA language for all of these dialogues.

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