Heard on the Gemba: We Are Great Problem Solvers, But…

By Jon Miller Published on February 26th, 2013

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Recently heard on the gemba:
“We are great problem solvers, but the same problems keep coming back.”

When the countermeasures are off target, the problems reoccur. If problems reoccur for the same root cause, we have not in fact solved the problem. We have only temporarily contained it. Even if the same problem reoccurs due to a different root cause, it is possible that problem solving was done without a thorough enough root cause analysis step. Problem solving has not successfully happened until we can verify that the root causes have been identified and that the countermeasures applied to them are effective.
Taiichi Ohno wrote in Toyota Production System:

When a problem occurs, if the root cause analysis is insufficient, the focus of countermeasures can be off. That is why we ask ‘why?’ five times. This is the foundation of the scientific attitude of the Toyota system.

In the Toyota way of working called TBP (Toyota Business Practice) there are 8 steps. These are synonymous with practical problem solving and are mapped against the PDCA cycle.

  1. Clarify the problem
  2. by providing background detail, context, history and going to see. Write a concise and simple problem statement. Gain consensus on the problem statement.

  3. Break down the problem
  4. by deconstructing complex problems into their component issues or themes, narrowing the scope or identifying any out-of-bounds or unaddressable areas.

  5. Set a target
  6. that will be achieved based on the above selection of the clear and broken down problem statement.

  7. Analyze the root causes
  8. by going to see, employing a variety of means such as Pareto analysis, Ishikawa diagrams and 5 why analysis, to arrive at actionable areas.

  9. Develop countermeasures
  10. to these root cause areas, with the emphasis on multiple countermeasures that can be deployed as experiments, rather than looking for one total solution.

  11. See countermeasures through
  12. to their successful or unsuccessful result, trying again and again without giving up until the target is reached.

  13. Evaluate both results and process
  14. in order to learn whether the plan was followed or whether short cuts were taken, whether results were achieved by luck or random variation or actual successful countermeasures, and systematically examine failed experiments or incorrect assumptions exposed while seeing countermeasures through.

  15. Standardize successful practices
  16. and learn from failures, share and set sights on the next targets by returning to step 1, the beginning of the PCDA cycle.

Granted, this process takes a lot longer than quickly defining the problem and jumping to a solution. Sometimes that is necessary in order to temporarily contain a problem. But it is not true problem solving, as in the application of root cause countermeasures. When the root causes are found and countermeasures are dutifully applied, the problems remain “solved” or at least non-recurring for the same root cause.
The popular A3 thinking or A3 problem solving is nothing more than the process of developing and documenting this collaboratively, one one page of paper, often A3-sized. Becoming great at problem solving is not a question of speed, brilliance or heroic effort, it is a dedication to the proven PDCA process and practice, practice, practice…

  1. Len Canoot

    April 5, 2013 - 2:28 am

    Very true. I wish it was a common culture to solve problems like this. I always use the analogy of a small coffee table to explain this kind of problem solving.
    In your living room, the coffee table is positioned in a crooked way and it looks awful! Solution-minded people will move the coffee table to its proper position.
    Problem solvers first ask:
    (1. Is this a problem?)
    2. If so, why is it in this position? (5-why)
    It turned out that the cleaning lady, after vacuum cleaning the room, moves the coffee table to clean around it, but never repositions it. She doesn’t do this because she is on the clock and only has limited time to vacuum clean the room. She has limited time because every time she cleans your home she needs to pick up her children from daycare. She has planned it very tight because she has very little money. Instead of moving the coffee table every time, you increase the wage of the cleaning lady (ofcourse the increasse in wage is more of a problem than a crooked coffee table…).
    Jon, I once read that the TBP was born in 2000 and is based upon A3 problem solving which is based on the Kaizen Story. The Kaizen Story is almost similar to TBP. Could you elaborate on the differences? I really would like to know more about these subjects.

  2. Mark Graban

    January 16, 2015 - 7:35 am

    I often hear “We’re great problem solvers” but what they really mean is “We’re great at jumping to solutions.” Those solutions often don’t really solve the problem… but people THINK they’re good at this. That really gets in the way of improvement…

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