Lean Problem Solving: A Great Fix for a Down Economy

As clarified by Jamie Flinchbaugh of the Lean Learning Center in a recent Industry Week article on problem-solving through the lean lens, lean is about problem solving. It is the never ending process of solving the problem that prevents us from getting to the ideal state where every need is met on time and with zero waste.

When trying to solve a problem, it’s important to note that waste is caused not just by processes with major problems, but by processes with minor problems as well … and that minor problems add up and multiply the total waste. Sometimes a wasteful process will have a dozen little inefficiencies that multiply into one big efficiency. That’s why a lean approach is needed — it looks for deviations from optimal at every step of a process, no matter how small at each stage of the problem solving process.

Lean attempts to identify the purpose of a process in identifying the root cause of a problem, not just the intended end result. Consider the example of cycle timing marks in the assembly process brought to light in the article. Viewed through a traditional lens, the purpose is to help the operator keep pace and speed up if he falls behind. But viewed through a lean lens, the purpose is to identify a potential problem with the process. Work should keep its own pace and the lines should spot problems as they occur, not (well) after the fact. If a task is problematic, because parts don’t quite fit or machinery isn’t performing at spec, it should be immediately identifiable from the lag in cycle time and provide an immediate opportunity for quick intervention.

Lean also trains us to engage problems, and not assume that they will be addressed by others. Most organizations work in fire-fighting mode and allow a problem to select them, rather than selecting a problem and dealing with it. Other problems, of seemingly lesser importance, are dismissed as insignificant or “typical” and ignored. Resources need to be allocated to a problem as it occurs, not after the fact.

Finally, lean tells us that a solution is not a solution unless it makes the new way easier or the old, problematic, way impossible. Lean doesn’t force-fit a solution — it develops one that fits just right.

For more information on the basic problem solving process (which you should embed a lean lens into), see the following posts:

For more information on lean, see the following posts: