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Art Smalley

Art Smalley: Breaking the Dysfunctional Cycle

By Art Smalley, - Last updated: Thursday, February 25, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

There are multiple parts to Professor Rob Austin’s latest question so I am going to break it up and attempt to deal with the parts that struck me as most interesting in the paragraphs below.

For starters Professor Austin would like to generally know what can Lean do about this type of situation which unfortunately  is typical whether it be in manufacturing or service type of operations. I hate to sound like a broken record but I always remind companies that we have to learn to first specify either what are the exact problems or goals for improvement. Often this inability to articulate a specific problem or goal is a problem in and of itself. This emphasis is important because if leaders are not clear regarding problems and root causes then useless action items often get put into place that have no bearing on cause and effect. Resources are wasted, time is lost and employees grow disenchanted.

So the first step in this situation or any other for that matter is to start with the problem and end state goal in mind. Just starting with tools won’t get the job done. As Albert Einstein purportedly once stated the definition of insanity is to keep repeating the same process over and over and expecting to get different results (or improvement in this case). Something has to change in this organization if improvement is going to occur.

The organization mentioned in the question apparently is not only stuck in firefighting mode but also has trouble making problems visible. I suspect this is because the ability to define a problem mentioned as mentioned above does not exist or is not very strong. Regardless problems become visible when “standards” are properly defined and put into place. A problem is merely a gap from standard. One definition of “standard” is a basis for comparison. In other words if you don’t have a standard that is clear or at least well understood then by definition the problem will often not be visible. So some of my questions in this case would be: 1) Are problems really defined properly? 2) Do standards exist to show clearly the goal and the extent of the gap? 3) If not then why?

Keep in mind I don’t simply mean to go around posting standards endlessly. Drafting a poor version of a work standard or a standardized work chart does no good as a “remedy”. I can post standardized work charts all day and it will have little or no effect on delivery. Similarly I can create kanban cards and have little or no impact on work productivity or quality for example.  Problem definition as well as cause and effect needs to be sorted out. The first step however involves critical thinking and proper problem framing before moving forward. That is a primary role of a leader in any improvement task.

It also sounds like this organization has a couple more common problems. They do not seem to be able to distinguish between common cause and special cause variation and fall into the trap of thinking everything is some type of one off special cause variation. Mistakes and problems repeat in reality. Simple data collection can highlight that point usually in a day or two in many cases. In the 1950’s and 1960’s Toyota was heavily influenced by the thinking of Edward Deming,  Joseph Juran, and Kaoru Ishikawa in the quality arena.  I don’t think that companies are capable of improving unless they have some prerequisite skill in basic problem solving and the 7 QC tools of Dr. Ishikawa. This company may need some of that skill building in certain positions in order to gain any traction.

The company also apparently suffers from a heave dose of the Lake Wobegon effect (Illusory superiority) and wants to believe they are all above average although this is statistically impossible. Either someone in top management has to table the realities of the situation or an outside agent needs to help them self diagnose their problems.

When you are in a vicious cycle of trouble the strongest tool or insight that companies can bring to bear is the 80/20 rule or Pareto principle. There is always some time available to make improvements. In a worst case scenario you might have to work late or use Saturday to get started. However the first simple need is to stop wasting time on activities or meetings that are not getting results. Wasting time on small problems or in meetings might keep people busy firefighting or feeling good but it does not get you out of a hole or crisis. In times of crisis or extreme difficulty someone has to be tasked with figuring out the “vital few things that matter to do and not the trivial many” to paraphrase Joseph Juran. It sounds like the leaders and managers in the company lack some of this prerequisite skill. The only way out of firefighing is through efficient problem solving (80/20) and getting root causes…through this you earn the right to work on the next problems in line. There is no simple free pass.

As far as applying Lean concepts in service operations they can all be adapted but it circles back to what is the problem? If you want to shorten the lead-time to respond then the processes can be mapped out, delays identified, and countermeasures put into place. If you want to improve productivity then the answer is to balance work to takt time and get everyone working to that rate. Don’t simply give more work to the better workers. This is overburden or “Muri” in Toyota and not acceptable in production. For those who don’t meet the required rate this is equivalent to the workers on the production line pulling the andon chord in Toyota. You then have to figure out why the person can not keep up. If it is difficult then remove the difficulty. If there are secret tricks or patterns that better workers know then make those open via Job Instruction techniques (Major Steps, Key Points, & Reasons Why). If quality of work is the problem then make a Pareto chart of the problems and get working on those…I could go one with other tools but I hope the point and thinking pattern is clear.

When teams are still confused and feeling dismayed then I tell them to step back and just work on “something” they can get their arms around even if it is not #1 on the Pareto chart of problems.  Simply take a job or process and break it down using the basic worksheet in this link for work analysis. Write down the steps in detail as the job is currently performed. Identify problem points that relate to your setting and type of operations. Answer the following questions first using the 5W 1H technique for each step. What is it purpose? Why is it necessary? Where should it be done? When should it be done? Who should do it? How can it be simplified? Then for each step apply the mental framework of ECRS (Eliminate, Combine, Rearrange, Simplify) and probe for ways to improve. This was how Kaizen started in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Toyota. It is still a good starting point even today.

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