A customer asked last week whether Gemba Academy had a video comparison of solving a problem using a non-CI approach vs. solving the same problem with some basic CI tools and thought processes. While this is one of our favorite topics and is addressed here and there in blog posts, videos and podcasts, we didn’t have this exact module. It is a good suggestion to collect and summarize these in one place. As a first step, here is my draft of the top 10 differences between traditional problem solving and problem solving that is infused with the principles and practices of continuous improvement.
1. Jumping to solutions
In traditional problem solving, a lot of time is spent defending various positions, proposed solutions or beliefs, and not enough time getting the facts needed to weigh and select from possible solutions. In continuous improvement, time spent upfront in understanding the situation helps people to quickly arrive at consensus on sensible courses of action.
2. Demanding short-term results even at the cost of long-term results
Traditional problem solving puts focus on short-term results, or immediate relief from problems. This causes people to put band-aids on problems or even sweep them under the rug, rather than take the time to address their underlying causes. This results in the problem coming back later, often at greater cost. When new problems and old problems rear their heads at the same time, this creates a vicious cycle of having time only for short-term relief. Continuous improvement recognizes the need for short-term problem containment and relief but keeps the focus on long-term countermeasures at the source.
3. Single best solution vs. multiple, set-based countermeasure
Closely related to #2, in traditional problem solving we tend to pick “one best solution” and put most if not all of our limited resources towards it. This is great when we pick right but see #1. The continuous improvement approach of pursuing a set of countermeasures that address a set of causes enhances learning and increases our chances of success. It also leads to #4.
4. Keeping it simple
When we pursue multiple countermeasures in the continuous improvement approach, no single one can take a large share of resources. This causes us to look for small, simple, even minimally-viable solutions, rather than a big, smart and sophisticated approach as traditional thinking might suggest. Small, simple actions give us immediate feedback on whether our assumptions about the problem and its causes are correct, allowing us to make more small adjustments quickly.
5. Speeding up rather than slowing down
Traditional problem solving tends to be additive. We speed up the process to get more output. We add capacity. We put in more hours. Continuous improvement recognizes that this works in the short-term but is not sustainable. In the long-term we need to reduce losses across the system, work less hard, eliminate steps that don’t add value. We often can slow things down here and there to match and synchronize the pace of work with our customers, build quality into the process and improve throughput of the whole.
6. Punishing failure vs. learning from experiments
Problem solving in the context of traditional management can be limited by the fear of failure and its professional, financial or social consequences. Continuous improvement recognizes that failures are stepping stones to success, a part of learning, and leaders create environments appropriate for this.
7. Gemba focus
Traditional problem solving does not always insist that we go see for ourselves to understand the current situation, while continuous improvement does.
8. Solving the wrong problem
It is still surprisingly common to find people attempting to solve a problem which may or may not be the problem that matters to the customer. The continuous improvement approach requires that we thoroughly clarify, de-aggregate, stratify, define the gap and prioritize the perceived problem, from the customer’s eyes, before we set a target.
9. Failure to socialize
Where traditional problem solving can excel at providing technical solutions, the results often don’t live up to promise when it falls short on change management. The new process, policy or solution needs to be “socialized” adequately, which just means listening and talking to people throughout the problem solving stages. Otherwise known as respect for humanity, this is something that goes hand-in-hand with continuous improvement.
10. Experts vs. everyone
The reliance on a small number of experts at the expense of involving everyone in solving problems may be the largest failing of traditional problem solving. However, this ranks at #10 because I see and hear this steadily getting better over the last couple of decades. It seems the mainstream discussion today is not, “Should we empower and involve our people?” but rather “How do we…?” Practical Problem Solving, Toyota Business Practice, Toyota Kata, other simple kaizen methods, and continuous improvement principles above begin to answer that question.
This rank order is highly subjective to my personal experience. The reader may find otherwise. There are no doubt other significant differences between how problem-solving is practiced before and after adopting a continuous improvement mindset. Feel free to add your thoughts, opinions, questions and experiences to the conversation.