Building a problem-orientated culture

X — How do you know you’re working towards the right goal ? I’ve seen lots of companies building sand castles over the years.

Me — I guess you’re referring to the keep on aspect of Lean… Nobody wants to be caught driving towards a dead end.

X — Precisely : knowing when to start a project and when to stop it is always very difficult.

Me — In Lean, you’d start with « cleaning the glass » : small problems have been impeding your team for years, everyone is working around them, now is the time to tackle them. And the countermeasures that emerge shouldn’t be treated as « quick wins ». Quite the contrary, they’re just the fuel for the kaizen spirit.

X — But we have tons of problems and of all sizes, shouldn’t I be trying to solve the big ones instead ?

Me — You could also try climbing floors Parkour-style without taking the stairs and see if it works for you.

X — I see your point, but I fail to see why addressing random problems would be a strategic advantage.

Me — Because you’re not just fixing random stuff : you need to teach you teams to see problems, to understand them and to learn from them. And Lean is very specific on the type of problems that are worth investigating, always starting with quality. It’s also very explicit on the set of tools to visualize problems : Just-in-time (pull, takt, kanban, etc.) and Jidoka (andon, autonomation, poky-yoke, etc.).

X — But we don’t have a quality problem : our customers are usually happy. Otherwise we would have been out of business a long time ago !

Me — That was my line of thought as well. But a month ago, we realized we were missing 90% of our errors : a parameter changed and the notices, warnings and failures within a large part of our software was sent to a different log file, in a directory we were not supervising at all. It took us more than 5 years to notice it, happy as we were of not having too many problems. Overnight we were drowned in a 131-fold increase and it took us a couple of days to clean up this mess that went unnoticed for so long… Remember : having no problems is the biggest problem of all.

Keeping on the kaizen spirit

One of the key insights I’ve gathered with Lean over the years is learning to keep on improving. The improving part is usually the easiest : find a problem and solve it. I can ask any developer in my company and given the time slot, he’ll do something.

Dantotsu, a book by Sadao Nomura
The Toyota Way of Dantotsu Radical Quality Improvement, by Sadao Nomura

Reading The Toyota Way of Dantotsu Radical Quality Improvement by Sadao Nomura, I was particularly impressed by the keep on part since it’s the difficult chunk.

The first example is the sensei’s timetable. The schedule is done yearly : it’s not some improvised visit but a recurrent trip (3 times a year) over a long period (9 years in total). And there’s no shortage of repetition.

Dantotsu, the book
Annual quality improvement guidance schedule
For overseas employees, the Toyota Production System (TPS) seemed to have some unbelievable points, no matter how much they read the relevant books or learned from others. Therefore, I decided to hold a 2-week TPS training program in Japan three or four times a year in addition to the local on-site lessons, and gave the experience to 100 or more managers, team leaders, engineers, and other key persons coming from each company. Through this training program, they learned by actually seeing with their own eyes and experiencing what they had not believed through reading or listening.

Another example is the number of successive countermeasures taken against problems found on the Gemba.

Dantotsu, the book
Countermeasures for service parts pickup work

There’s no magic silver bullet : it’s always about digging deeper until a root cause is found. Rinse and repeat as some would suggest.

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