Improve or Troubleshoot?

The usual quarrel in an improving organisation is that people must do two things at a time. Solve the daily problems and face the challenges that Lean evolution brings. (By Lean evolution, I mean all those changes that happen to a company, its people, their beliefs and behaviours, during the trip towards a Lean way of thinking and operating). Those challenges are formidable and can wear people out to the point that they abandon the effort and fall back to daily troubleshooting. After all, it’s one thing they know how to do well; it gives them work satisfaction and raises their prestige amongst peers.

Solving the daily problems, troubleshooting, fire fighting, whatever you want to call it, is necessary; but it is not evolution. Or, I should clarify, it is not evolution in most cases, but I will come back to that. In every organisation there’s a plethora of daily problems, machine breakdowns, delayed deliveries, computer crashes and photocopier jam-ups. This is how traditional managers make their salaries. Fix things, scream on the phone, reassign staff, keep the proverbial wheels turning. It is a difficult job but this type of problem solving keeps an organisation in a steady state, at best.

In fact, such a company will never keep up with the rapid pace of our era and will be beaten easily by competition. People understand that more these days and try to do something about it. Almost everyone has a go at some sort of “continuous improvement”. Unfortunately, most of them are not dissimilar to good old troubleshooting.

Take the performance boards, for example, the sort of visual control that is very popular. In theory, the shift manager passes by every hour and looks at the real output compared to the plan and takes corrective action. In reality one of the following dialogues takes place:

Dialogue A:

–          What happened?

–          It’s jamming up

–          Did you fix it?

–          Yes, we’ve tried this and that, it’s a bit better now

–          OK, carry on

Dialogue B:

–          What happened?

–          This machine is producing too many rejects

–          Try changing such and such and I’ll see you later

In both cases a patch up is applied, something that will keep the line running. They very rarely, if ever, try to discover the underlying causes. There is no time for that, a quick solution is all that’s needed to make the day’s production quota and stay out of trouble.

Let’s look at another favourite tool, the improvement meeting. Once a week, a team from production, engineering, logistics, etc. meets in order to “increase efficiency”, “reduce complexity” and so on. They go through a long list of “actions”, another widely used tool, and check whether they are completed or not.

During a particular company’s quest to increase OEE, I’ve seen both the “hourly manager’s check” and the “improvement meetings” going on simultaneously for a year (during which hundreds of actions were completed without any improvement in OEE.) They were just fixing problems as they appeared, without fixing what’s causing them. Everyone was working hard but they couldn’t make the lines run better.

The performance boards, improvement meetings, action lists, Gemba walks without a purpose, etc., are what I call disguised troubleshooting because they don’t bring real improvement. They combine tampering and all sorts of ideas and suggestions, usually without knowing which problem they are trying to solve or measuring how well they are solving it. They are not completely unnecessary; they just don’t contribute to Lean evolution.

What’s needed to become Leaner is to imagine a slightly better state and go for it by addressing the root causes of barriers that prevent you from getting there. On the way, you’re teaching improvement and you enhance people’s creativity and ingenuity. When you reach that state, you want them to be slightly more autonomous.

The best way to start is with a vanguard team, one that includes the Site Director. There must be a long term challenge that will be used as an opportunity to teach how to improve. The goal is not only to improve but, as mentioned, to create autonomy. Imagine, for example, a packing line that must reach 90% OEE in the next three years in order to cope with increasing demand. A challenge and an opportunity for the vanguard team to assemble and start teaching improvement. It’s no surprise that the team will start by observing the process and imagining a better state that it will then pursue.

In the particular packing line example, the team sees somewhat long changeovers, a bit of confusion when it comes to addressing minor stoppages, irregular maintenance and non-standard ways of running the line. They think the process can be in a better state in 6 weeks. In this healthier state, changeovers take half the time, there is a clear way of dealing with stoppages, an autonomous maintenance schedule is followed (while at the background a full TPM programme is designed), and standard work is followed as a matter of course. The journey to this improved state of affairs will be obstructed by various roadblocks, both physical (i.e., machine design) and mental (change resistance). But this is how people will get better; by demolishing those blocks.

The role of the vanguard team is to nourish the people involved and teach them how to approach problems, how to analyse them and how to resolve them. There’s no point in giving them the solutions because, remember, in the end you want both a better state and more autonomous people. So, the solutions must come from proper problem solving and trials. Hopefully, those people will be able to use the new way of thinking to keep improving their process and also act as teachers to other teams. Eventually, improving becomes part of everyone’s work. And if everyone’s doing it, the organisation has acquired a new culture. Organisations with the culture of improvement will go a long way.

So, to go back to the original quarrel, how can a manager both deal with the day to day issues and improve her team and process every day? Well, by choosing a better way to deal with the issues, she is doing both. Every problem is an opportunity to teach and learn something new and an opportunity to teach and learn how to get to the underlying causes and eliminate them, whilst moving towards a defined better state. After solving a problem and improving a tad more, the team is better, wiser, and more autonomous. And with hundreds of well educated, autonomous people you have an organisation that will beat all competition.

By Takis Kavvadias

Photo of Takis KavvadiasTakis has been applying Lean and Six Sigma in various companies over the last 8 years. A Master in Industrial Engineering and a Black Belt, he is currently working with GlaxoSmithKline as an Operational Excellence Expert.

Contact him at

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