The eight step description of the PDCA cycle of problem solving called Toyota Business Practice (TBP for short) or practical problem solving continues to top my list of important things everyone should know. I’m finding it surprisingly hard to get people excited about this. Perhaps it seems too simple, too obvious to take seriously. Or perhaps we are so good at solution-jumping that the first 5 steps seem redundant (they’re not!) and we just can’t be bothered to go through these eight steps:
- Clarify the problem
- Breakdown the problem
- Set a target to achieve
- Analyze the root cause
- Develop countermeasures
- See countermeasures through
- Check both results and process
- Standardize successful processes, go to step 1
If you must, as many will, jump from “we have a problem” (step 0) to “we have a countermeasure” (step 6) perhaps at least I can prevail upon you to proceed to step 7. What does it mean to check both process and results? It sounds obvious and we may think we already do this. I recently heard a metaphor that is quite apt to describe this concept. Let’s take a type of person who becomes very rich very quickly. For example the lottery ticket winner, a professional athlete, a rock group which has a hit record or two. It’s not uncommon to hear of these people ending up poor again. Why is this?
Although to differing degrees there was effort and ability involved in how these people became rich, a good part of it was luck. There is no process behind a lottery ticket winner’s wealth. There is seldom a strong business mind behind the commercial success of a stereotypical rock band. An athlete that is focused on being the best they can be at their game often has not studied business, home economics or made long-term financial plans. the process for building their wealth may have depended in a measure of luck. And what process that may have existed is rarely checked, standardized or repeatable: it is what we call heroic effort. When they have spent all of their money, forgotten to pay their taxes, developed expensive habits, and need to create wealth again, these types of people often cannot duplicate it. There is no process to go back to, only spent luck.
When we practice problem solving we need to be sure that we have left ourselves some breadcrumbs like the children in the fairy tale so that should our countermeasure not work out, we can find our way out of the forest and try again. In fact, even when our countermeasures do work, we need to follow our breadcrumbs to make sure that we can learn from success, share the success and make it repeatable. The process we check includes the problem description, breakdown, root cause analysis, countermeasure planning method, the actual method of implementation of the countermeasures, as well as various documented assumptions to that point. The process that we follow can be something as simple as “did we stick to our plan?” Many times we need to ask the question “Were the process metrics improving while our results metrics were improving?” because when the answer is “no” we need to question whether it was luck, or whether the root cause we thought we were addressing has gone away for an unknown reason, or external factors improved the end result even with the process unchanged.
At some level people are happy to contain the problem and move on. People think that root cause countermeasures are too hard, or too expensive. We ask “At what price?” when faced with the possibility of solving problems at the root cause level. We trick ourselves using numbers games that it is easier to inspect out defects than to go upstream (often overseas) to correct the problem at the source. We just want the problem to go away, even if it has just slinked under the proverbial rug. We don’t want to question the process too carefully. Why? Our processes have feelings, and we don’t want to hurt them. Sounds ridiculous, until you consider that most of the time we don’t have processes at all, just people who do the work. When we try to question processes we end up threatening people. We need to start by defining the standard process so that we can attack the process, not the person. People doing the best they can with insufficient resources is not a process, it is a shame.
The Toyota Business Practice is a standardized problem solving process. You can even use it to build processes where none exist, since that is often one of the causes of problems. Step seven of Toyota-style problem solving is all about making sure we are following the process we set out to follow, instead of solution-jumping. When we jump from step zero to step 8, we may think we have come to a rapid resolution to the problem but it is no resolution at all if the problem reoccurs and we have no evidence of the process we followed to achieve the result. If you find yourself in that position, I have a solution for you. It’s called the 8-step problem solving process. Not to be a solution-jumper…