Category Archives: Problem Solving

You Can’t Solve a Problem You Can’t Identify …

Nor can you solve a problem that won’t admit exists. Industry Week recently ran a great article on Surfacing Problems Daily that pointed out a harsh reality: the culture of many organizations dictates that they only face problems that they know how to address.

But if you only face problems you know how to solve, the problems you don’t know how to solve grow and fester … until, someday, they paralyze you. But it doesn’t have to be the case. You can recognize the problem as soon as it becomes apparent. Even if you can’t solve the problem right away, the sooner you begin to address it, the sooner you are likely to come up with a solution.

So what can you do to improve? According to the article, you can:

  1. Assess the Current Condition
    and make sure you know what to do when you see a problem.
  2. Develop a Mechanism
    to insure that the problem is properly recorded and tracked.
  3. Establish Non-Monetary Incentives to Surface Problems
    to insure that they are identified and recorded.
  4. Define How Leaders Should Respond
    since workers will not surface, track, or even acknowkledge problems if the leaders don’t support the initiative.

And make sure that you understand the nature of problems … as old ones get solved, new ones surface. It’s a never ending cycle.

Want a Productive Supply Chain Organization? Buy Some Cots!

The Mexicans were right all along. If you want top-notch productivity from your people, you need to allow them a siesta. It doesn’t have to be a long one, a half hour will often do, but it’s critical to if you want to maintain top levels of productivity for the entire day.

As highlighted in a recent HBR blog on why companies should insist that employees take naps, research has demonstrated that nappers outperform non-nappers. When Dr. Sara Mednick of the University of California had her test subjects practice a visual task at four intervals over the course of a day, she found that those who were allowed to take a (60 to 90 minute) nap, sustained their performance level while those who didn’t performed increasingly poor as the day goes on.

And it has been known for years that when pilots are given a nap of just 30 minutes on long haul flights, their reaction time increases by 16%. In comparison, non-napping pilots experience a 34% decrease in reaction time over the course of the flight. That’s a 50% advantage in reaction time for the napping pilot, after only 30 minutes of rest.

So buy your employees some cots or some Barcaloungers (as the blog author suggests) and give your employees a half hour for a nap after lunch (or after dinner if they have to work late to participate in a call with your overseas location). Their performance will skyrocket.

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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:

Build Your Credibility Too in 20 Minutes a Day

Not only can you increase your chances of success in 2009 in 20 minutes a day (see parts I and II), but you can also increase your credibility as well. As a recent article in e-Side Supply Management that outlines 10 Credibility-Building Tactics points out, it doesn’t take much to undermine your credibility in the workplace — and more often than not, you won’t even realize you’re doing it. But not only can you make a number of quick and easy changes to re-establish your credibility, you can also take pride in the fact that these quick and easy changes will build your credibility as well.

  • Think, don’t Feel
    Decision making should center on facts and trade-offs, not emotion. Think, don’t feel.
  • Sit at the Table
    Otherwise, you’ll never be viewed as an equal.
  • Don’t Apologize for Everything
    If you did what you thought was right for the company and did your best, you have nothing to apologize for. And you definitely shouldn’t apologize for meaningless minutia. Font too small? Chart too busy? Who Cares!
  • Don’t Be the Hired Help
    There’s being helpful and supportive … and then there’s being the maid or the administrative assistant. If that’s your job — great. But if it’s not, think twice about always volunteering for the meaningless minutia.
  • Attack the Issue, Not the Person
    If you disagree with something, do your best to identify the issue or the behavior without labeling an individual or group as responsible for it. State that the reports are useless, not that the creators are careless or haphazard, for example. And remember that even sometimes the smartest person will have the dumbest idea you ever heard. (And sometimes even on purpose … because we know that if we can’t come up with anything good, it’s often the worst idea that we can contrive that will inspire you to come up with something that is truly great.)
  • Use unequivocal language.
    No one likes a cowardly pussy-footer. And definitely don’t use language that leaves others with the impression there is a choice when there really isn’t. If your current supplier is inept, don’t say “we should consider whether we want to change suppliers”, say “we need to change suppliers now”.
  • Keep Your Inside Voice Inside
    Although it’s constructive to identify all of the risks associated with a various course of action before you make a decision, once you make a decision, don’t constantly fret about it. All you’ll do is wear everyone down.
  • If You Must Be Late, Don’t Be Disruptive
    Don’t add to the disruption of being late by offering an explanation, and definitely don’t ask to be brought up to speed. If your boss really needs to know why you’re late, wait until after the meeting and have the conversation offline.
  • Avoid Filler Words, Phrases, and D’Oh!
    Useless words such as “so,” “you know,” “anyway,” “um” and “er” that contribute no meaningful information will cause your audience to tune out, or, even worse, break out their “filler-word bingo” cards. Either way, the most you’ll be is amusement.
  • If You Don’t Know, Ask.
    No one knows everything, and no one with more than two active brain cells would expect you to. So don’t be afraid to ask once in a while … after all, the best way to be taken seriously is to ask some good, well thought out questions.

A Chief Executive’s Advice for Performance Improvement

In Turnaround Time: Ways to Jump Out of a Slump, Mark Gottfredson and Steve Schaubert wrote a remarkably perceptive article that outlined a clear and simple process for navigating your way out of a downturn:

  1. Diagnose the “Point of Departure”, or where your business went wrong
  2. Identify the “Point of Arrival”, or where your business needs to be at the end of a period of time to be successful again
  3. Define a small number of key initiatives that will sequentially get you from the “point of departure” to the “point of arrival”

Ok, maybe it’s not so simple as many business have a hard time identifying, at least internally, where they went wrong, have a harder time figuring out what will make them successful, and often have the hardest time of all identifying that sequence of innovative initiatives that will take them from here to there. However, the article does note that when businesses start to fail for performance reasons, the vast majority of the time it is because they violate one of the following four fundamental laws that, despite not being built on an economic theory, do capture, in an almost eery way, some fundamental truths of business:

  • Costs and Prices ALWAYS Decline
    It is a basic law that inflation-adjusted costs and prices in nearly every competitive industry decline over time. Raw material costs going up? Then you have to find an innovative method of production to keep costs done, or a way to make the product from an alternative, cheaper, material, or a way to make a higher quality product that carries more (perceived) intrinsic value. (Successful cell phone manufacturers live and die by the latter.)
  • Competitive Position Determines Your Options
    Leaders are always in a good position to gain more market share through investment or to raise industry standards in quality, service, and innovation. Followers are stuck with doing their best to keep up until they hit upon an aggressive innovation strategy that can move them into a leadership position.
  • Customers and Profit Pools DON’T Stand Still
    The desires of your customers will change over time, as will the amount of disposable income they have. You need to know what your most profitable customer segment is and meet their needs.
  • Simplicity gets Results
    In addition to simplifying your processes, you must also simplify your strategy, organization, breadth of product line, and, most important, usability. Apple understands this well.

The authors also give you a good working definition of “point of arrival”. Specifically, it means a set of defined, numerically specific goals that can be accomplished in just two or three years. In other words, don’t shoot for the moon if you haven’t even successfully launched a rocket into space yet. Although the goals should be bold and compelling, they must be realistic. No amount of motivational speaking will get your employees behind something they know is fundamentally impossible.

Finally, they give you some advice on how to select the right initiatives to get you there. Specifically, select ones with measurable metrics that address the following characteristics of the four laws:

  • Law 1: Costs and Prices Always Decline
    • Cost/Price Experience Curve
    • Relative Cost Position
    • Product-Line Profitability
  • Law 2: Competitive Position Determines Your Options
    • ROA/RMS
    • Market Share Trends
    • Capability Assets and Gaps
  • Law 3: Customers and Profit Pools Don’t Stand Still
    • Customer Segments and Trends
    • Customer Loyalty
    • Profit Pool Migrations
  • Law 4: Simplicity Gets Results
    • Product & Service Complexity
    • Organizational & Decision Making Complexity
    • Process Complexity