One of the core elements of Lean thinking is that problem-solving is the central mechanism of continual improvement. But not all problems are alike. Some problems are about not (always) meeting the standard; others are about the current standard not meeting the (current or future) expectations of the stakeholders. The first is more of a management problem and requires a standard; the second problem type I consider a leadership problem and requires a vision. Solving the first type of problem leads to consistent performance; solving the second takes the organization to another level of performance.
Problem Type I: Execution Deviates from Standard
One of the frequently addressed problems in Lean is when a process deviates from the standard. The assumption in the case of course is that there is a standard and that we can observe that we deviated from it. In eliminating this kind of problem, the standard plays different roles. First of all, the standard is the reference with which the whole team can establish objectively and jointly whether or not we can actually speak of a deviation. Without a collectively accepted standard we cannot even conclude as a team that there even is a real problem of type I. Second, a well-defined standard can guide the problem-solving team in checking the potential causes of the problem. If done well, the standard should list all important steps and key points relevant to the process that the team can check on the gemba or use to reproduce the problem.
In problem type I, the standard can actually be seen as the wedge keeping the process in place as good as it can. The wedge is used to create stability and consistency in our performance associated with the current standard. When sliding back, we try to track down the cause and eliminate these so we can get back to the standard. The standard as a wedge helps us to maintain a certain level of performance. Another corresponding image is that of the high jumper trying to consistently get over five feet but not always succeeding due to a lack of consistency during execution.
Within Lean, problems of this first type often are within the domain of the operational teams. Unfortunately, operational teams are faced with these kind of problems more than once. But it’s not that operational teams per se are not incapable of executing according to standard. It’s only that they do not always succeed in all cases that go through the process. I refer to problems of this kind as management problems, whereby the standard and various problem-solving methods and techniques are at the team’s disposal to drill down to the causes and restore stability and consistency in their processes.
Problem Type II: Standard Deviates from Requirement
The second type of problem is that a standard – though possibly being executed consistently and providing stable performance – does not meet the demands made on the process. In this case it is not about a deviation from the standard, but about a deviation from what performance the standard can provide versus what is expected from the process now or in the future.
In this situation, the current standard still functions as the wedge, but the wedge just isn’t or will not be adequate enough anymore. So we have to start looking a new way of working, a new standard and so a new location of our wedge on the road towards perfection. We will not so much be looking for “causes”, but for “obstacles” that possibly are in the way of creating a way that will meet the new demands. The image corresponding to this situation is the high jumper that now knows how to consistently get over five feet, but who has set himself the ambition to go over six feet.
This kind of problem often is more (but not exclusively) within the domain of the team leaders and managers. It is expected from them that they reflect on the next step in the development of the team, the organization and its processes. This requires that we continually challenge ourselves and our teams. It requires that we do not become complacent regarding our current performance, even when our customers do not seem to be asking for better right now or the latest benchmark has shown we are not doing that bad in comparison with others. It requires instead that we develop a vision of where we want and need to be in the future, both in terms of performance and our ways of working. Therefore, I refer to this second type of problems as leadership problems.
Recognizing Problem Types
From Lean oriented managers it may be expected that they can readily recognize these two problem types when confronted with a problem during their daily work. This is important in order to develop the right reflexes in deciding about the approach and allocation of problems within the organization.
Personally, I always first strive for stability in a process before again challenging the adequacy of the standard regarding future needs and ambitions. in my opinion, immediately challenging the standard that has just been put in place by the team makes no sense when we do not first prove to ourselves that as a team we are capable of consistently executing our process according to standard.
Moreover, when being confronted with a problem of type II, I also try not to (only) assign the problem to the team. This type of problem requires the active participation and vision of leadership to ensure the ambition, priorities and guiding principles are aligned with those of the organization as a whole. Furthermore, the challenges related to this problem type are of a different nature then the challenges presented by problem type I. Problem type II more has the characteristics of a journey of exploration whereas problem type I shares more characteristics with a crime scene investigation.
So, hopefully, the next time you are confronted with a “problem”, I hope this post will help you think about what type of problem in fact it is that you are confronted with: did we deviate from what standard is, is the standard inadequate or are we maybe even lacking a standard?