It is easy for organizations to slip into patterns of working in ineffective ways. One of the most common patterns I see is fixing the symptoms of problems which only pushes the obstacles into the future where leaders will face the issue again. This frequently unconscious choice wastes resources when compared to its alternative — putting energy into permanent solutions to long-standing challenges.

In a previous post, I addressed the adjustments leaders need to make to stop rushing from one crisis to the next, which included building a culture of problem solving. By activating more of your organization’s underutilized brainpower, leaders can spark greater aliveness and engagement in their people. Since I recognize that many leaders may not know how to get started, let’s take a look at applying a framework to foster greater curiosity and resourcefulness in a real-world situation.

Go & See: The Place Where Problems Are Solved
Part of my work I enjoy the most is engaging with front-line personnel in an organization. These are the people that make things happen. The people who most directly influence whether the organization delivers a great solution and experience. They are also the people who see where the organization struggles to deliver on its promises. My experience has taught me that in order to truly understand a breakdown I must observe what’s real with the people doing the daily work rather than rely on the assessments of executives far removed from where the work takes place.

In walking the floor with one of my contract manufacturing clients recently, I came upon the production line in the image below. If you’ve ever wondered what a production variance looks like, now you know. In a place where only packers should be doing their work, we have a log jam of personnel, including the line operator and supervisor. Applying more manpower to an issue is one way that leaders choose to patch rather than permanently resolve unexpected issues.

Observing the extra-processing waste at the end of this production line, I walked over to examine the production board that confirmed what I suspected — the team’s hourly production was behind target. As I returned to the end of the line, I decided to employ the Five Whys — a simple but elegant technique that can be used by any individual or team with hands-on experience with a specific problem and process.

Five Whys helps a team facing an issue reflect on cause and effect relationships is search of a root cause understanding for a problem they are facing. As the name implies, teams begin by asking “Why?” with an earnest curiosity in response to a clear problem statement (i.e., Why is the team not hitting its production targets?) Each answer provides the basis for the next question.

Keeping these inquires productive means that answers must be grounded in facts (things that actually happened) rather than conjecture (what might have happened). It also means responses should avoid pointing at lack of time, investment, or resources. Instead, guide problem solvers to stay focused on  why  the process failed.

  1. Why are we behind the production target? Bars are piling up in gray bins (bottom right of image).
  2. Why are bars piling up? We can’t get them in the shipping boxes fast enough.
  3. Why can’t we get them in the boxes? They are too tight, so we have to fill them, and then manually count to make sure we don’t underfill.
  4. Why is the box not being stacked directly on the pallet? We need a weighing station to ensure it is packed to specification.
  5. Why do the boxes on the pallet not match the visual control? When the box is filled to specification, it won’t close properly.

In less than ten minutes the team had unearthed the root cause for a multi-year production variance — The box was too small!

When the boxes were right-sized, packers filled their shipping boxes without stress, operators and supervisors got back to their work, and all counting and weighing waste was removed from the process. The direct and indirect benefits of the solution applied to this product as well as similar problems across the floor amounted to tens of thousands of dollars of increased productivity annually.

Wrap Up
Start putting your energy into permanent solutions to long-standing challenges. There is no need to push recurring issues into the future. Solving these problems in your organization is less time consuming and more straightforward that you might think. By activating the “team brain,” and giving them authority to enact the solutions they develop, you are on your way to getting the people closest to the work solving problems every day.

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