Lean Problem Solving Culture

September 1, 2009
By Darren Dolcemascolo

Most Lean Six Sigma literature claims the following: Six Sigma means quality, Lean means speed! One must have both six sigma and lean or some form of a lean six sigma "program" to achieve faster lead-times, better productivity, and better quality. Case Closed! I, however, must challenge this assertion. Lean does not simply mean speed. Lean is the term that was used to describe the Toyota Production System (TPS). TPS is not all about speed and nothing about quality. In fact, when most people think of Toyota, they think of quality first. Both Six Sigma and the Toyota Production System attempt to achieve the best quality; however, there are some differences in how these ends are achieved. In order to be successful, Six Sigma and the Toyota Production System require a culture change- a change in the way we think about problems. In this article, I will cover some of the keys to creating a Problem Solving Culture.

First of all, solving problems is the key to any continuous improvement effort. When we solve problems, we become more productive, and we deliver better quality products to our customer faster. What does it take to become a problem solving organization? Is it simply teaching a problem solving method such as DMAIC or some other Root Cause Analysis method?

In truth, most companies have people who have had some form of problem solving training, yet very few of those companies have a problem solving culture. Let's look at three missing ingredients.

1. A problem solving company must treat problems as opportunities for improvement rather than opportunities to assign blame. Based on my experience, when a problem occurs at most companies, the first thing people want to know is "who did it?" When they find out, they usually perform a "rubber-stamp" root-cause analysis and state that the root cause was lack of training. Since re-training does not prevent the problem from occurring again, it will undoubtedly be repeated. Under these conditions, very rarely can problems be seen as opportunities for improvement. If you were a person who discovered a defect at such an organization, would you be willing to bring the problem to the surface so that it could be solved?

2. Problems must be treated as "system" failures rather than people failures. Allow me to illustrate. Let's suppose that a machine operator is tasked with observing a machine to ensure that it is not creating defects. It is inevitable in such a situation that a defect will go undetected from time to time and be discovered in a downstream process. A problem solving company would observe this as an opportunity to change the system rather than to re-train the operator. The change should be to prevent the defects from occurring in the first place by error-proofing the process or at least error-proofing/automating the detection process at the source of the defect.

3. All employees must be empowered to identify and solve problems. In a problem solving company, there must be a process in place by which people can identify and then solve or elevate problems to be addressed. The process must define who is responsible for identifying problems, what must be done to contain the problem (i.e., prevent a defect from reaching the customer), and what process must be followed for solving the problem and creating countermeasures.

When these three ingredients become part of a company culture, better productivity and better quality become reality. This is because people are empowered to identify problems and because problems are opportunities for improvement. If a company encourages its employees to identify and solve more problems, improvement will happen.

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