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Problem Statement…Got One?

Defining the problem well is a very important step in solving any problem.  Yet, in coaching problem solving, problem statements are very rarely written well or even understood.

There are five components to a well written problem statement:

  1. What is under performing?
  2. What is the actual performance?
  3. What is the needed performance?
  4. Why does this need to be addressed?
  5. What will be affected by solving this? (Safety, Quality, Delivery, Cost, Morale)

Example: Number of critical software issues in testing was 13 and needs to be at 0 because the software can not be released until the critical issues are resolved which delays the cost savings and increased revenue of using the new software.

(Color coded to show the components of the problem statement).

There is a clear understanding of what is wrong, where the performance needs to be and why it is important.

As a team works on solving this problem, they can always bounce their root cause and potential countermeasure against this statement to see if they are delivering on what is important.  The team always knows how they are affecting the business (reducing cost and increasing revenue).

“The software has too many issues to release,” is not a good problem statement.  What kind of issues?  How many?  What are the repercussions of the issues?

This is the type of statement that I see way too often.  As you can see, there are too many questions to get a clear understanding of the problem.

A well written problem statement will get a solid problem solving process started on the right foot.

 

It’s Not Always About the Big Improvement

With any improvement philosophy, people always want the BIG improvement.  When there are none to be had a re-organization or a shift in direction is implemented.  This may work for a short period of time, but eventually the results normalize back to their old levels.

A uniqueness with lean is creating a focus on getting better each day.  Even it if is just a second or two better.  Saving 1 second each day while maintaining the savings from the previous day will yield 8.7 hrs of savings after a work year.  What would you do with a full extra day of capacity?

Paul Akers has called this 2 second lean.  It is extremely powerful.

Focusing on small improvements means focusing on what bothers you and your customer and fixing it.  It could be as simple as always having to search for a stapler when doing paperwork.  Or moving the placement location of a label.  This saved a group I worked with 1 second per label…we timed it.  Over the course of the year, that was a savings of over 30 hours for the team!

People don’t like to focus on small changes because it isn’t “sexy”.  Guess what?  Sexy falls apart quickly and usually has no substance.

Build lasting change a little at a time.  It takes patience and understanding but two years from now you will have better actual results than people chasing only the “big” improvements that never get completed.

Learning Happens When Realized Value is Verified

A project is proposed.  Most projects have an return-on-investment (ROI) associated with them to help sell the idea.  The ROI lists out the benefits of completing the project.  The project gets approved.  People work on it until it is completed…hopefully.  Congratulations are given on good work.  People move on to the next project.  The End.

Notice anything missing?  Arguably the most important part?

No one goes back to verify if the project produced the benefits that were stated in the ROI.

How does the organization know if the investment was a good one?  A bad one?  Or a great one?

Checking the benefits isn’t the “sexy” part of the project, but it is the rewarding part of the project.

Why don’t people go back and check the benefits?  Is it because it is a month to a year after the project is complete before they are seen and people forget?  Is it because people put inflated benefits on the ROI statement and they don’t want to get called out on it?  Is it because putting a value to some of the benefits is extremely difficult?

Whatever the reason, it can’t stop you from checking the actual value realized from a project.  What if you didn’t reach the realized value stated?  Can something be done to increase the realized value.  What if you exceeded it?  Don’t you want to celebrate it?  Use the learnings to sustain the extra value realized.  The learning from verifying the realized value is immense.

Try Q-Storming Instead of Brainstorming

Have you ever been stuck on a project?  Don’t know where to go?  Looking for ideas?

A common tool people will use in groups to help with get things moving will be to brainstorm.  The problem with brainstorming is it helps people converge on a particular answer.

People will put up any and all ideas they have already thought about.  Then ideas are voted on to narrow the field.  When finished the group ends up with a handful or less of ideas from the person with the strongest voice in the room.  Typically, these ideas are along the lines of the current direction of the work.

What if you don’t want to limit yourself in your thinking?  Come up with idea(s) that haven’t been thought of yet.

Have you tried Q-storming?  Instead of ideas, think of as many questions as the group come up with.  In a recent exercise, the group came up with over 30 questions about the work to be done.

It caused the group to dig in more and find answers to some very good questions.  The door was opened to several different ways to attach the problem.  Some of which were not even on the radar before the q-storming.  The team was able to shatter some assumptions.  Allowing them to work in a new way.  It was very freeing.

If you want your thinking to diverge from norm then try Q-storming.  Or if you have a need to converge your thinking use brainstorming.

How to Observe

Last blog, I talked about the most important lean tool being the eyes.  The eyes allow a person to the reality of what is happening and gather facts.

So, if direct observation is important then how should a person go about doing it?

Here are a few pointers I have picked up along the way:

  • Have a purpose before you go out to observe.  Are you going out to see a particular problem?  Are you going to audit a specific process?  Is there a process you trying to improve?  A specific type of waste you are looking for?  Whatever your purpose, understand it before you go out to observe.
  • Explain what you are doing.  People get cautious and worried when someone is just standing to the side watching their every move.  Tell them why you are there and ask them to explain anything they feel is important.
  • Be in the moment. Don’t answer the phone.  Don’t start other conversations.  Just observe.  Stand in one area and watch what is happening with scrutinizing intent.
  • Ask clarifying questions.  If you need to better understand something, ask the person doing the work questions.  Don’t leave without having answers to your questions.
  • Take notes.  You are there for a purpose, so write down what you need to remember.  Notes of what you observed are your facts.
  • Take prompt action.  Don’t wait days to do anything with the facts you have gathered.  Things change quickly so use what have you seen before the facts become outdated.

Good luck and happy observation!

One Man’s Lean Journey: Process and Data Don’t Matter…Just Emotions!

Following a structured problem solving approach takes fortitude and courage when the world around you wants to shoot from the hip and judge based on their emotions. I found this out when dealing with one of the automakers we supplied.

Our quality engineer (QE) got a call that our grilles were not fitting the front of the cars correctly and asked her to take a look into it. The QE asked me to help find the root cause. We first tested our gages at our facility and found they were certified and working properly. Our parts showed to be within the tolerances given to us by the automaker.

We decided a trip to the automaker was needed to see the process, talk with the operators and also run a couple of tests. The QE and I asked the automaker’s QE to pull two vehicles off the lot and save for us to test. One vehicle is a great example of how the part should fit and one vehicle where the part fits very poorly.

When we arrived at the assembly facility the first thing the QE and I did was go out to the assembly line and talk with the operators that assemble our grilles the the vehicles. The operators said our grille may not fit the first vehicle but would work great on the next one down the line. This was a big clue. Direct observation of the process was a huge help in understanding how our grilles were assembled to the cars. We ended up knowing the process better than the automaker’s QE.

Next we asked to see the two vehicles we requested to be set aside. Well, he only saved the bad vehicle and not the good one. This became a point of contention because we needed a good car to compare the differences and conduct a test. He argued with me for 10 minutes before I finally convinced him to pull one in from the lot outside.

I conducted my test and proved with a 95% confidence level that our grille was not root cause of the fit issues. There were two possible causes: 1) the fender or 2) the fender’s interaction with our grille (the fender on one end of their specs mixed with a grille on the opposite end of our specs could cause the fit issues).

This was not received well at all. The automaker’s QE contested everything I did and wouldn’t believe the findings even though he watched me during the entire test. It took a second automaker QE to come over and see what was going on to get any agreement. The second automaker QE heard about the test and backed up my findings.

I even volunteered my help to conduct more tests to find the root cause. They agreed to the help and both the automaker and the QE from my company had action items to complete in the next two weeks in order to do further testing.

As we followed up with the automaker’s QE over the next couple of weeks, we found he was not living up to his end of the action items and was still trying to blame our grille. The QE and I had to escalate the issue to our plant manager who supported us and called their plant manager.

A compromise was reached. The test was conducted as I laid out but I was not allowed back into their facility. In the end, it was the fender that had issues.

It was hard to stick to the process when every obstacle was being thrown in the way. It taught me a valuable lesson about how strong emotions on a subject can be even with data and facts presented.

Reflections:

  • A strong process is an amazing thing to be able to fall back on in times of stress. It showed exactly why people fall back into old habits when things aren’t going well.
  • The right thing isn’t always the easy thing. It can be hard to standup for the right thing even when it is good for your customer.
  • Having a leadership team that supports and encourages strong processes is critical when those processes are challenged
  • Solidified my belief in the power of a strong process to get predictable and sustainable results
  • Direct observation of the grille being assembled provided strong facts that no one that hasn’t seen the process could argue

One Man’s Lean Journey: If You Follow the Process, The Results Will Come

One of the most valuable lesson I learned while working in the automotive industry wasn’t about the industry or people or even myself. The most valuable lesson I learned was having a great process will yield predictable results. I didn’t learn this from a manufacturing process. Instead I learned this from a problem solving process.

The automotive supplier I worked for was part of the Chrysler Supplier Quality Program. As part of that program, I got to learn different methodologies for problem solving. One was Shainin’s Red X methodology. I followed the methodology stringently. The benefit was repeatedly achieving great results.

One example was the with the electro-plating line. This is a large vats of chemical baths that produced a chrome finish on plastic parts. The line was operating at a 84% yield. Any defects that came out of the line had to be trashed. The parts could not be salvaged. We were throwing away approximately $40,000/week in scrap. I was asked to problem solve the scrap and get the yield up.

I knew squat about chemistry then and I still don’t know squat. In fact, I needed a tutor in college to get me through freshman chemistry. But that was my task.

Following Shainin’s Red X methodology and never wavering from the process, within in two years the plating line was running at a 96% yield. The line had never ran above 91%. Scrap dollars were down to $10,000/week.

I learned that I didn’t have to know anything about an area to achieve significant results if I followed a good process. It is something that is stated repeatedly in the lean world, but until you have the experience it is hard to truly understand the power of this.

I was accused of “always being right”. I never said anything of the sort but when I was accused of that I would say, “Yes, because I follow the process not because I know anything.”

Have you experienced a good process that is predictable and repeatable?

Reflections:

  • A good process is more powerful than hero employees
  • You don’t have to be an expert in an area in order to produce significant results
  • It is easier to stick to a process when you are unfamiliar with the area, because you can’t rely on your “expertise”

Root Cause vs. Containment

A typical response to problem solving is to contain the issue and consider getting to the root cause.  From my experience, this is because people don’t know the difference between root cause and containment.

It can be easier to see in a tangible manufacturing environment.

Problem: A group of products have a broken screw that will cause the product to fail

Containment: Sort all product to find the ones with the broken screws and replace the screws.

Root Cause: Find why the screws were broken in the first place.  Were the screws torqued too much?  Weak screws?

Most people understand the difference when an example like the one above occurs.  But in a business environment, people seem to miss this difference.

Problem: The numbers on paper say the budget is $10 million, but the manager says the budget is $6 million.

Containment: Get an answer to which budget is correct.  $6 million or $10 million?

Root Cause: What caused there to be a discrepancy between the numbers on paper and what is being said?

I see a lot of answers around poor communication or people getting the containment answer and believing they got to the root cause.  We should be finding a root cause to why there was a discrepancy so there isn’t another one in the future that causes delay in the process.

Just because you are able to move the process forward, does not mean you got the root cause.  Take the time and find the root cause.  It may take more time now, but it will save a lot of time in the future.

Buying New Equipment? Use What You Got.

During some recent blog reading, I was spurred to think about a past situation when a company I worked for was buying new equipment and how WRONG this decision was.

I had been with the company for about four weeks when I heard about a capital expenditure my director had just approved to buy nine more of a patented machine.  My company owned the patent.  That would give us a total of 99 of these machines.

First question I asked, “Why are we buying more of these machines?”

The response was a typical one, “We they need more capacity because we are meeting the demand.”

I didn’t ask anymore questions at that point.  I decided to go and see for myself.  This was easy because the corporate offices we were in was part of the main manufacturing building.  I had to walk about 100 yards.

During my observations I found two things:

  1. The overall OEE of the 90 machines was around 35-40% when it was running.
  2. At anytime I never saw more than 50 of the 90 machines running.  This was because we never had enough people to run all the machines.

SAY WHAT?!?!!

After a few hours of direct observation, it was clear there was no understanding of what was really going on.

First, attack changeovers and downtime to get the OEE of the machine up to the 75% range.

Second, why buy more machines if we can’t staff them?!

By my calculations, if the OEE was raised to the 75% range, not only would we not have to buy more machines we could get ride of about 20-25 machines we already had.  That would mean our current staffing would be pretty close to what we needed.

I presented this to my new boss and the director, but by this time it was too late.  The money had been cut and were pretty much crated and on the road to our facility.

This is why companies should question any new capital expenditures.  Companies should be maintaining and using what they have first.  The OEE should be at least 70% if not higher before considering adding more capacity through spending.

Do not make any decisions about capital expenditures until the current state is thoroughly understood.  The best way to do that is to go and see for yourself.

Practice with a Coach

Last week I got to spend some time with my coach, Jamie Flinchbaugh.  It has been awhile since I have seen him and the time was very well spent.

He met with the entire group I work with.  During that time, we talked about problem solving and how important it is to have a coach when learning good problem solving.

The quote that stuck with me was:

“Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.”

He reiterated that this is why practicing with a coach is so important.  Just like in sports, a player practices with a coach so he knows he is doing the right things.  The same is true for problem solving and lean.

My first coach was Dennis Mouser.  He spent about 3 days a week with me helping me learn a good problem solving methodology and making sure I practiced it correctly.  It has been eight years since we have worked together but what he taught me is embedded in what I do when solving a problem.

Speaking from experience, a coach is an investment that everyone learning lean and problem solving should make.  They will help you practice the right things so it becomes permanent.