One of the biggest challenges in transforming an organization into a truly Lean organization is to change its typical reflexes in coping with problems. The way in which organizations deal with problems is predictive of the extent to which they will be able to embrace Lean thinking and doing. If organizations – and particularly their management teams – show important signs of beating about the bush, they probably will have difficulty in becoming Lean.
The River of Inventory
Already for decades, the metaphor of a “river of inventory” has been used to illustrate the way in which inventory obscures any rocks (problems) that may exist on the bottom of the river. The same analogy can be used to also illustrate ways of dealing with problems.
The course of the river thereby represents the organization’s way forward to execute the organization’s mission and to realize its vision and ambition. The volume of water in the river can be seen as the capital and operating expenses required to follow the river’s course. And lastly, the rocks in the river represent the problems or obstacles on the way.
Now, let’s explore four typical ways in which people in organizations may deal with these rocks, i.e., cut and run, conceal, circumvent, or confront.
1. Cut and Run
The first way in which people may deal with their problems is to cut and run, and to abandon the mission. They will argue that, in fact, it is not desirable for the organization to go in the direction of the course of the river. They will question the mission, the particular product or service, or at least the vision and ambition relevant to that mission.
Faced with the challenges and the required means, the “cut and run” approach may be disguised as a seemingly unprofitable undertaking, a payback period that is apparently considered to be too long, or something like a poor business case.
Another way people may deal with problems is to conceal them. This means that we “throw” enough resources and/or money at these problems so that we don’t feel them anymore. In the metaphor of the river, it means we add enough water to cover up the rocks, mask them, and ensure that the organization can fulfill its mission.
The required costs are seen as necessary given the objectives, sometimes even as unavoidable. Costs are simply passed on to customers and consumers, and when profit margins become too small or even negative, the organization may even revert to the “cut and run” strategy.
Thirdly, people may circumvent the problems; they navigate around the problems and think they can outwit them. This approach often manifests itself in the form of initiatives that propose some kind of an intelligent, fashionable new method or technique (frequently accompanied by technology), pushed by consultants and vendors, that will “solve” the organization’s problems. Furthermore, this approach is characterized by a very favorable business case for the approach that, however, hardly ever materializes in reality. In addition, these approaches typically require more indirect (and highly educated) personnel, further distancing the direct workforce from staff and management.
In the metaphor of the river, this approach can be seen as an expensive sonar and radar system, used by the organization to get around the rocks in the river. This approach can be particularly insidious, as it is often perceived as solving the organization’s problems, and simultaneously as a fashionable “best practice”, visibly supported by consultant-driven benchmarking and even industry-wide award ceremonies. Ultimately, however, one should understand the rocks in the river are still there and the costs of the navigation system will continuously need to be supported as well.
Finally, people can actually confront their problems; they face and deal with them head-on. In the river analogy: these organizations lower their costs while achieving their ambitions by removing the rocks. This, however, requires hard work. But it is the only way in which problems are removed from the river, costs are lowered, and the investment is only one-off.
This approach manifests itself as true problem-solving, where the root cause of problems is identified and eliminated through effective countermeasures. It strengthens the relationship between the direct workforce, staff, and management as they are all required for such an approach. It signifies the true Lean way.
Active and Passive coping
Coping with problems is typically divided into two strategies: passive and active coping. The first three forms of coping with problems described above can be seen as passive or avoidance coping. Only the last approach – confronting your problems – is a form of active coping. Active coping has traditionally been seen as the healthiest and most beneficial way to deal with problems in life, while passive coping generally is seen as leading to poorer outcomes, or even aggravating the situation. Maybe it is time that organizations also practice active coping instead of running away from their problems, throwing money at their problems, or navigating around them.
Think about the foregoing for a moment and review the ways in which you or other people in your organization deal with problems. Remember that issue with that poor return on investment or lengthy payback period that was put aside? Or when someone said the costs were just part of doing business – that there was no other way? Or what about that new fad that was proposed, that latest “silver bullet” that was presented to you by that nice consultant? What problem was actually eliminated from the business? Can you tell? Think again, next time you recognize these “placebos” while dealing with challenges in your organization. And do the right thing.