Lean Problem Solving: Tips to Avoid Raising the Water Level

Imagine that you are an operator at the Panama Canal, and you notice that the area you oversee has started accumulating many rocks below the water. Even if you have never been much of a boater, one thing that should be intuitive is that in boating, you generally want to avoid hitting large rocks. What should you do in this case? The worst thing you can do is ignore the problem, but the next worst thing is to mask the problem altogether by merely raising the water level in the canal. Raising the water level is expensive, and maintaining that water level will continue costing you in the long run. The sensible canal operator would organize a team to go down there, find the rocks, and get rid of them. This is a visual used often when describing lean problem solving.

If you are familiar with lean problem solving, the idea of “raising the water level” is not a new concept to you. Essentially, in the workplace we sometimes act like the bad canal operator. It is easier to fix a problem by throwing resources at it than to actually solve the problem. But in the end, this method is more costly. For example, my job at LeanCor involves planning the shipment of materials to our customer based on what they actually need to meet customer demand. This involves working with suppliers to implement a PFEP (Plan For Every Part). What if a supplier consistently ships more or less freight than we plan for? In this case, raising the water level is saying, “We should just expect them to ship more freight than we plan for, so we'll adjust our plans and truckloads accordingly.”

If we do this, we will incur many forms of waste - including space on the trucks. Instead, we can ask, “Why do they ship more or less freight? We need to work with them to correct the problem at the root level, so what they ship is exactly what the customer needs."

When this happened with a supplier, we got together as a team and discussed the amount of waste caused by this issue and quantified it in terms of time and money throughout the value stream. We then scheduled a meeting with key contacts at this supplier to unearth where the inconsistencies originated.

Embracing lean problem solving can sometimes be difficult. Here are a few tips to keep in mind along the way:

1. Set realistic limits for your team.

It would be great if you could solve all of your problems at one time, but that's obviously unrealistic. Ask yourself and your team, "How many problems can each person on your team handle effectively at once?" Your team may be stretched more during one season than during another, so your problem solving capabilities may be limited during those times. Keep an eye on these limitations and come up with a final number of problems your team can handle at one time.

2. Identify your problems as you work.

Lean problem solving embraces the idea that people doing the work will be most capable of identifying problems, since they are the ones who experience them every day. When someone on your team identifies a problem, keep track of it. Make sure all of your problems are visible, and identify them as you go about your normal business day. Our problem with suppliers shipping inconsistent freight was unearthed as we began to visually realize a trend that caused problems and rework throughout the value stream.

3. Prioritize your problems.

Problems are everywhere, but some are more important and costly than others. Once you know how many problems your team can handle at a time, take a look at all of the problems you identify throughout the day and ask, “Which of these are the most costly for our team?” These are the ones you want your team to handle first. Even though the inconsistent freight problem was glaringly costly and inconvenient, we still needed to ask, “Is this one of the highest priority problems we are facing right now?

4. Check/Adjust

Make it a point to take 10 minutes each week to meet as a team specifically for the purpose of lean problem solving. Look at the problems your team is working on and identify where each team member is in the problem solving process. If you have solved one problem, use this meeting as an opportunity to grab another problem from your list and start the process with that one. Additionally, be sure to keep an eye on problems you have already solved to make sure the processes you put in place are not breaking down. For the inconsistent freight shipping problem, I was able to inform my team that we were running a bit behind due to coordinating a meeting with the appropriate contacts. It was also a time to share potential next steps.

5. Make it visible.

This is a very simplified version of how visibility looks for our customer team at LeanCor:

Rock Chart

In addition to the KPI dashboards projected on the wall in the Operations Center, the format above is a broad explanation of the process within our individual customer team. The items on the left side (labeled “Rocks”) represent problems we have uncovered but have not had the chance to work on. The middle lists problems we are currently working on, which corresponds to the amount of problems our team can handle. The right ("Sustain") side of the board represents problems that we have solved. We call this side of the board “sustain” because we want to make sure we still have our fingers on the pulse of these problems. We don’t want to dismiss them, but rather make sure that our lean problem solving efforts produce sustainable results. For the inconsistent freight problem we kept a timeline taped to this board, along with accomplishments and progress toward our goals according to the timeline. When we are all comfortable doing so, we will move this problem to the “sustain” side.

6. Your job is never done.

Just when you believe you've solved every problem, there will be a time when a new process will be implemented, a new supplier is introduced, new parts will be required for your production, etc. These will all come with their own set of challenges. Lean problem solving is never truly finished. In fact, we use the phrase “continuous improvement” to describe the type of environment we strive to achieve.

Lean problem solving will take effort. Just like entering the trenches of a canal to clean it out will take more effort than just raising the water level. But the payoff will be far greater processes and therefore greater results. Just remember to set realistic limits for your team, identify your problems as you work, prioritize your problems, check/adjust, make problems visible, and remember that your job is never done!

Written by Michael Burchett, Lean Logistics Specialist at LeanCor

Posted by LeanCor Supply Chain Group

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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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