Lean Problem Solvers: The Story of the Missing Link

I’ve been working in the Logistics industry for the better part of a decade now, and I’ve finally been able to identify the arch nemesis of lean practice. This adversary is the least visible, yet in my opinion, the largest threat to the progression of our practice – the enemy of lean is the superhero.

The superhero I’m referring to has been glamorized throughout history, showcased in many stories, anecdotes, fairy tales, etc. He is the answer to the problem, the solution to the impossible situation, the hero that saves the day, over and over again. For the sake of this story, we’ll refer to our superhero as Link, as in, "the missing link." He exemplifies the following (but not limited to) characteristics: the employee who can make problems go away, become relied upon on a regular basis, establish wonderful relationships with customers, consistently produce exceptional results, and generally give the impression that everything is perfectly fine.

Link does all of these things in a silo, a shroud of mystery. He portrays this aura about him that cries, “don’t bother me, just let me do things my way and all will be well." The especially tricky thing is that, on the surface, everything appears to be running smooth (making it more difficult to recognize a serious problem exists). His customers, co-workers, and bosses are extremely happy. However, Link is the missing link in his own operations; without him, the quality of work and service to the customer would fall apart. Should the customer ever lose the support of Link, they’d likely be begging for his return in no time so things could be “back to normal." Here's the the reason he’s the missing link:

Under the facade of his smooth running operation, lies a wealth of complex non-standard and non-documented processes, relationship strategies, projects lists, critical tasks and meetings. In general, everything he did was understandable, visible, and manageable only by Link.

As with any good story, anecdote, or fairy tale, there is always a symbol of hope against the oppression. This classic struggle goes back to the beginning of time, popularized by historic examples of Good vs. Evil, such as David vs. Goliath, Ghostbusters vs. Stay Puffed Marsh-Mallow Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vs. the Shredder, and, from whom I’ll draw motivation specifically, the Tortoise vs. the Hare.

While Link represents the Hare, our Tortoise is the Lean Problem Solver, who I’ll refer to as Lenny. Similar to Link, in Lenny’s world, everything is running smooth and on a consistent basis. He has very happy customers, co-workers, and bosses. As you’ll soon understand, although Link and Lenny’s results seem to be similar, their approaches are starkly contrasted.

This is the story of Link and Lenny.

As Lenny sat in the office break room eating his Kashi GoLean Cereal, Link walked in, arriving to work that morning 15 minutes late, and muttered something inaudible to Lenny. Lenny replied, “how is it that you get here late every day, barely seem to put any extra effort into your work, yet everything’s going great? Your boss and customers think the world of you, everything’s running smooth with your operations, yet you seem to do it all so effortlessly. I don’t get it?”

Link replied:

“Well, it’s not that complicated, Lenny. I just do whatever’s required and I’ve got a really good (although complex) system down for myself, to ensure I don’t miss anything. And besides, Lenny, it’s not like you’re doing so bad. You seem to have everything going in the right direction.”

Lenny responded:

“Yeah, I do. But recently, I’ve been given the opportunity to transition to another full-time project, which means I’ve been focusing on ensuring my (work) house is clean. I’ve done a great job of ensuring everything I do is documented in process flows/maps, and has effective Standardized Operating Procedures (SOP’s) which have been tested through cross-training. But as I’m sure you’re aware, it’s easy to drift away from keeping these documents up-to-date, which is why I’m reviewing and auditing everything before handing it off to another process owner, just to ensure the accuracy. I’m concerned that if I transition out without a good succession plan, our output to our customer and standard work quality will suffer and as a result, we may have a very unhappy customer on our hands…and you know what that can lead to. Thank goodness I’ve been documenting everything from the beginning, and doing Lean Problem Solving every step of the way, as problems arose and gaps were identified.”

Link begrudgingly asked, “So, who asked you to do all of this “extra work” so you could transition to this new project?”

Lenny responded with a grin, “Nobody, I just know that as an empowered employee and a Lean Problem Solver, it’s my responsibility to leave a stable legacy behind me, and there’s no way I’m ever going to hand my work off and have the opportunity to take on something new, until I prove that somebody else can run my operations with no impact to current customer service/satisfaction.”

Hearing all of this made Link very nervous. He was about to go on a week-long vacation and had planned to cross train somebody to do his work, in the next two weeks, leading up to his vacation. Knowing he was severely behind the gun here and fearful that he was going to jeopardize the relationship with the customer, (not to mention disappoint his boss due to his short sighted approach to his work,) Link began putting many, many hours into creating SOP’s and process maps/flows for when he was out. As he soon found out, since he was starting from scratch in his attempt to document everything about his operations, he was up against a fearfully impossible target. Not only was it extremely difficult to accomplish this due to his complex procedures that required advanced knowledge of accompanying software, but, to add more complexity to this, all of his “standard work” was full of exceptions (deviations from the normal process). As he attempted to cross train his fill-in Tony with incomplete SOP’s, he realized immediately that the account was in trouble. Even with two weeks of training and lack-luster SOP’s for all major aspects of the job, he quickly realized that it would be impossible for Tony to complete these complex tasks with any type of precision. And, if any kind of problem should arise, then he wouldn't fully understand the work or be able to troubleshoot when necessary.

When it finally came time for the vacation, Link asked Tony to call him if he had any troubles, knowing very well he’d be receiving calls due to the poor training and lackluster SOP’s left for Tony to follow. Similar to how he ran his account (being a superhero and just “taking care of it”), Link was willing to sacrifice his personal time to raise the water level and cover up gaps in training and standard work.

Just before Link was about to head out the door and start his vacation, his boss, Penner, stopped him and asked “is everything going to be A-OK, Link?? Considering how smooth everything runs with your operations, I’d guess Tony will do just fine and I’ll have nothing to worry about.” Link nervously grinned and said, “You’re in good hands….and in case of an emergency, I’ve asked Tony to call my cell, no matter what." Link said this, thinking it would impress Penner, showing his dedication to work and commitment to ensuring everything ran smoothly. Penner replied, “Nonsense! Enjoy your vacation, you’ve earned it! I’ll talk to Tony and instruct him to call me, in your absence.” Obviously, this made Link very nervous, and he set out on his vacation, crossing his fingers and hoping that everything would run smoothly."

It was a bright sunny morning on the Monday following Link's vacation, and Lenny was preparing his Kashi GoLean cereal in the break room when Link walked in. Lenny said, “Wow, you’re early! Do you feel bad about the storm you left behind for Tony and Penner?” Link just stared back at Lenny as if somebody had just stole his puppy dog. All he could mutter was, “Was it that bad?” Just as he finished that sentence, Penner walked in the break room offering his typical “good mornings” to Link and Lenny.

“Link…” Penner said in a sarcastic approach, “You’re never allowed to go on vacation again! Obviously, I’m joking about that, but I think you need to spend some time with Lenny. Since he’s transitioned to his new project role, he’s had somebody covering his previous responsibilities while maintaining the same level of customer service/satisfaction. The output has been consistent and at a quality compared to when he was doing, prior. He didn’t even have to spend too much time training the person due to his superb job at continuously being a Lean Problem Solver and keeping updated documentation on all processes."

Link asked if he could speak with Penner privately and they went into a conference room. Behind closed doors, Link opened up to Penner.

“I’m so sorry this happened, Penner! I knew that it would be difficult to fill my shoes and I tried my best to get everything documented before I left, but I just didn’t have enough time. And, quite frankly, Tony wasn’t catching on very quickly, so I think I was up against a losing battle anyway.”

Penner interrupted abruptly, “Link, the success and consistency/quality of customer service should never rely upon a strategy where we’re all expected to be superheroes. The House of Lean isn’t supported by superheroes acting as the foundation, supporting everything with their own individual, complex, non-standard procedures. If that were the case, whenever that person would leave to go on vacation, take on a new role, etc., the house would crumble. This certainly would not support a long, sustainable and successfully beneficial partnership between us and our customers. Rather, the House of Lean is built upon a solid foundation of Standardization and Stability, allowing brilliant minds (superheroes focused on Lean Problem Solving rather than individual achievement, leading to them being the missing link) to continuously problem solve and build a legacy, fostering cross-training, and repeatable, consistent results. In the spirit of lean, please take this as a building point from which to learn. I think you’re a brilliant worker, but in order to make the leap to Lean Problem Solver, I need you to focus your efforts on building brilliant processes which produce brilliant results."

Written by Kevin Gross, Lean Logistics Team Lead at LeanCor

Posted by LeanCor Supply Chain Group

LeanCor Supply Chain Group is a trusted supply chain partner that specializes in lean principles to deliver operational improvement. LeanCor’s three integrated divisions – LeanCor Training and Education, LeanCor Consulting, and LeanCor Logistics – help organizations eliminate waste, drive down costs, and build a culture of continuous improvement.

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