September 1, 2019
By Darren Dolcemascolo
Lean thinking is all about providing
the customer with a defect free product
and/or service when the customer needs
it and in the right quantity. This
is accomplished through the elimination
of waste. So, where does problem
solving fit in? Problem solving is
the DNA of lean and kaizen. We
might say that engaging everyone in the
process of problem solving is what lean
culture change is all about.
How does this work? There are many
problem solving methodologies, and there
is some variation in the steps even
between what lean practitioners call
lean problem solving. However, all
good problem solving methodologies are
similar in that they begin with properly
defining and understanding the problem,
they proceed through the identification
of critical causes, they work to then
identify countermeasures to address the
causes, and then they involve planning,
experimenting, and implementing
solutions. Finally, they work to
sustain and continuously monitor
Let's begin with the first basic
step- identifying the problem.
What is a problem? A problem is a
gap between the current condition and
target condition or standard. For
example, we are unable to meet a
required lead time. We are
currently averaging 4 weeks while our
target is 2 weeks. Our problem
statement might be: "Product XYZ lead
times are currently averaging 4 weeks
over the past 6 months. Our target
condition is to achieve a 2-week lead
time within 60 days from today." A
problem can be high-level (e.g., not meeting
planned revenue) and strategic or it can be
front-line level (e.g., defect on a part or
error on an invoice).
After we understand the problem
through observation (i.e., going to the
gemba or where the work happens)
and review of data, then we can
begin identifying potential causes or
obstacles that are preventing us from
reaching the target or standard.
We can use multiple tools to do this,
but it boils down to more observation
and data collection. For lead time
reduction in our example, we might use
value stream mapping to identify what
the key obstacles are.
After we have performed the necessary
analysis and experimentation to
determine what the critical obstacles or
causes are, we can begin identifying and
testing countermeasures to our causes.
These countermeasures may or may not
involve lean tools (such as 5S, quick
changeover techniques, etc.).
After testing our countermeasures, we
plan and implement them while evaluating
their effects on our metric.
Finally, we put in place ongoing
controls to sustain our improvement.
These involve monitoring and having a
response plan in case something goes
wrong- this can be accomplished through
This is lean problem solving in a
very small nutshell. It is based
1. Plan: This includes everything
from identifying the true problem
through identification of causes through
identification of countermeasures.
2. Do: This includes testing and
3. Check (or Study): This involves
evaluating the effectiveness of the
countermeasures on the key metric(s).
4. Act/Adjust: This involves
adjusting as needed based on our
evaluation and putting in place
Kaizen, or continuous improvement, is
all about problem solving- getting from
current condition to target condition
using a systematic approach.
Learning and applying this approach on a
continuous basis is how a lean culture is
created. Is everyone practicing
problem solving? Are they being
coached by someone more experienced than
they are? If this is happening in
your organization, then you are at least
on the right path toward creating a lean
culture- a problem solving culture.
Click here to subscribe to our free e-newsletter Learning to Lean and receive three articles like this one each month.