One of the most common obstacles to successfully deploying lean is failure to appreciate the level of transformation required in behaviors and systems. Far too often, companies attempt to implement a variety of lean tools on top of traditional systems and behaviors and are disappointed with the results.
Among the many behaviors that require transformation for lean to work effectively is the need to make problems visible. Since lean is heavily focused on continually comparing actual results to standards and addressing the issues that cause gaps between the two, it can only work when problems are highlighted quickly and honestly.
Is it Really That Difficult?
Assuring problems are visible makes perfect sense and is something many organizations mistakenly believe they already do. For a variety of reasons, showing problems is not something that does not come naturally to many people. It is more natural to hide – or at least not openly display – problems with the hope they can be resolved before being discovered.
It is important to understand the reasons people hide problems and to realize that transformation is required in order to make it okay – and even an expectation – to show problems quickly and clearly.
Why do we Hide Problems?
Although there are a number of reasons that people don’t feel comfortable showing their problems, a few tend to show up more than others. The first is a fear of looking incompetent or unable to do the job effectively. Whether the result of a highly competitive culture, overreaction of leaders to problems in the past, or something built into the person’s emotional makeup, some people will not feel comfortable openly showing problems. Even when internal competition is not openly encouraged, a history of promoting people who hide problems or twist the story to make it appear that things are under control can cement the idea that it is not okay to openly discuss problems.
Another cause of hiding problems is the fear of getting “help” from people who don’t understand what’s really happening in the workplace. Some leaders feel that it is important to have all the answers and will regularly offer solutions to the problems without having all the facts. When the leader is disconnected from gemba, this leads to frustration in team members because they will feel compelled to follow the proposed solutions even when they know they won’t work.
It is perfectly normal for people to want to show that processes are running smoothly and things are under control. Because of this, it is up to the company’s leaders to continually instill the idea that highlighting problems is not only acceptable but expected within the organization. This means that there should never be negative consequences for making a problem visible. On the contrary, it should be made clear to everyone that hiding problems or failing to take action to address them is an unacceptable behavior.
As leaders are able to create the culture that it is okay to make problems visible, there are three common ways to help people show problems quickly and clearly: alarms or andons, dashboards, and meetings.
An andon signal is a way to immediately show that some aspect of work is not meeting standard. Andons are perhaps the most effective way to show problems because they are designed to highlight a problem immediately and at the point where it happens. Examples include ropes or buttons in the factory where people can signal a problem as it happens, or sensors that detect problems immediately (e.g., retrieving components for an assembly in the incorrect sequence by sounding an alarm when the operator reaches into an incorrect bin).
The keys to making an andon successful include having clear standards, enabling quick notification, providing immediate help, and recording the problems for longer-term problem-solving.
A key objective of a dashboard for an area or process is to clearly and objectively show the gaps between expected and actual results. Hiding the gaps or continually putting a positive spin on how things are going misses the opportunity to align team members on what’s important, and the problems that require attention.
Posting charts that track what’s critical for an area help keep people focused on how a process is expected to perform and, the more sensitive the chart, the more quickly action can be taken when a gap occurs.
Dashboards become ineffective when too much data is displayed or the charts lack simplicity. Think how difficult driving would be if the dashboard in your car contained 10 or 12 gages with a variety of information on each. The same applies to a dashboard for a work area. Keeping it simple and clearly connected to company or system targets is a key to assuring it is effective.
It is also critical to keep dashboards easy to maintain. Too often, people create multi-color, three-dimensional charts that show too much data, making the charts become nothing more than eye candy. The purpose of a chart is to highlight problems, not prove how adept someone is at creating graphs.
Many companies waste a lot of time in meetings talking about what is going well. Performance is reviewed and discussed – sometimes in excruciating depth – even when processes are on-target. People learn to dread meetings and use the time to catch up on email, Instagram, or the latest headlines on their phones.
The more daily and weekly meetings are focused on gaps – existing and potential – the more engaged people will be. The dashboards should drive the meetings and, the better the dashboards, the quicker people can zero in on the gaps and talk about what is truly important.
When teams do this well, they begin to take advantage of the collective knowledge of the team by focusing on improving performance. If they dance around the real issues by ignoring the gaps and continually putting a positive spin on how things are going, they miss opportunities to build teamwork and address the real problems.
The Problems Are There – Why Not Look at Them
Every organization has problems, and a key determinant of success is how well the problems are addressed. Openly showing the problems is the first step to resolving them. Getting to this point, however, often requires shifting behavior to make it okay – even expected – to look for the gaps.