How does Lean Thinking Help Us to Prepare for the Unpredictable?

By Jon Miller Updated on November 11th, 2018

One of the goals of lean problem solving is to prevent recurrence of problems by finding and addressing its root causes.  We identify the factors that are critical good outcomes. We learn when and how they vary outside of desired parameters. We follow the causal chain to its most basic triggering condition, or root cause. We become able to predict the future to a limited degree as we keep processes in statistical control.

Problem solving by taking root caused countermeasures frees us from fighting the same predictable fires over and over again. But what are we to do about problems that have never encountered before, or cannot predict? By definition, truly unpredictable events are rare. If unpredictable things happened all of the time we would be able to study, understand and better predict them.

How does lean thinking help us to better prepare for the unpredictable? We can examine this question by recognizing three types of situations in which problems become unpredictable.

1. Predictable but impractical. We consider some predictable problems to be unpredictable for practical purposes. To take an extreme example, we know that at some point in the future another large space rock will hit our planet. But we don’t know when, where or the size and danger of this space rock. Our predictions are not useful to any statistical degree for planning purposes. Therefore our countermeasures must be broad enough in scope to cover the range of possibilities. Lean helps us prepare for this type of unpredictability through emphasis on long-term thinking. We can keep our eyes to the sky, make emergency response plans in case of disaster, and invest in R&D for future technologies to deflecting such dangers.

2. Predictable but unmanaged. The vast majority of problems we face can be predicted. More than than ever in recorded history, we have data and understanding of what factors contribute to health, social, economic and environmental problems. This is the domain of practical problem solving through root cause countermeasures. We only experience these as “unpredictable” because of our failure to invest time in grasping the situation, visually managing the change points such as the 5M, and taking action as a group to prevent predictable problems. We know how to do this. It is a matter of combine the will and the skill.

3. Predictable but self-deceived. Even the most successful organizations can fool themselves into predictable problems. Modern history is littered with once-leading firms who ignored technological trends, competitors or other predictable signs of change. Variously attributed to cognitive biases, big company disease, groupthink or simply “bad culture”, there is a set of mindsets and behaviors that blind us to predictable and preventable risks. A classic one is being overly optimistic about our plans or our current situation. This may be the result of a false belief that, “We don’t have any problems” or due to signals from leaders that it is not okay to discuss risks and problems openly. This can be compounded by a desire to stick with and defend decisions once they are made. Unless we look at reality clearly, we can deceive ourselves into believing that predictable problems are not. Lean thinking challenges us to commit to the truth, to see the situation from both internal and customer perspectives, correct course by admitting failures early, and to dissatisfied even when we are successful.

In summary, some things are unpredictable because of their nature and other things because predictable human behaviors make them so.

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