One of the most important – and elusive – objectives of lean is creating a culture of continual improvement throughout an organization. In most cases, this requires changing the way people think and approach their work, and although helping people transform is never easy, it becomes even more difficult when those driving lean are not clear about the different types of improvements and how to approach each. Solving a relatively small, one-time problem, for example, requires different thinking than reducing fixed costs across the operation by 20%. It is far too common, though, to attempt both by using the same process – i.e., handing someone an A3, telling them to “do a kaizen,” and asking them to complete it. Besides the wasted time this can cause, it can confuse and frustrate the person being coached.
The objective of this post is to provide some clarity about the different types of improvement. Although the subject often leads to considerable debate and disagreement, I believe it is an important one, and something that lean professionals need to understand to help move an organization toward a sustainable culture of improvement.
The Different Levels
As shown in the diagram, there are 3 basic levels of improvement within an organization. The two lower levels deal with solving problems, i.e., a situation where actual performance does not meet a standard. This assumes that the process or activity is capable of meeting the standard and has done so in the past, thereby focusing the effort on analyzing what changed or what recently occurred that had not been seen before.
The third level, breakthrough, involves raising the standard to a new level to meet current or future business needs. Doing this successfully often requires the ability and willingness to question previously held assumptions, and applying creativity to drive step-changes in performance.
In practice, this means that each requires a different type of thinking. By looking for clues regarding what went wrong, problem-solving requires analytical thinking, whereas a breakthrough, by attempting to challenge the status quo and develop new ideas and approaches, requires creative or flexible thinking. Both are needed for an organization to be successful, and both often require effective and consistent coaching to prevent people from being confused.
Because of natural forces and overall effect on the organization, there tends to be significantly more activity at the bottom of the pyramid than at the top, while, although fewer in number, efforts at the top of pyramid tend to result in more effort and a larger gain.
The most common and basic type of problem people face are the daily issues that are often small, one-time annoyances that, although still requiring action, have less effect on the system than the more complex and repeatable issues that the organization faces. These daily issues still require countermeasures because they interfere with the ability of people to do their jobs easily. Additionally, if we ignore them, we are showing disrespect to the people affected and sending the message that waste is acceptable. Addressing them also helps people begin to develop structured problem-solving skills in a fairly simple and easy way.
Those addressing daily issues are still expected to develop a clear statement of the problem, root cause analysis based on 5-whys, and a countermeasure that proves effective in addressing the root cause, but not to the level of a more complex problem being addressed with an A3.
The daily issues are often addressed by those closest to the process who face the problems firsthand and, because of the nature of their jobs, do not necessarily have the time to step back and look for trends and connections between the problems that occur. As with all levels of the organization, the team lead or supervisor is expected to coach and develop the ability of team members to identify and address the problems they face.
Efforts to address daily issues should be documented on a card or simple electronic system to use for coaching, collection of data, and as a means to assure that problem-solving is occurring. Care should be taken, however, to ensure that documenting the effort does not become a burden or the benefits in terms of developing analytical thinking across the organization will suffer.
Whenever a one-time issue recurs or appears on a dashboard as a gap or trend, more structured problem-solving efforts are required. For these issues, an A3 is necessary to assure that the problem is effectively defined, broken down, and addressed. Although it can still be done quickly, the effort is often coached more closely and focused on developing skills more deeply. Rather than a simple 5-whys exercise to determine a root cause, for example, an A3 problem-solving effort would require additional answers for each “why” and verification with data and visiting gemba to see firsthand before moving forward. Since an A3 effort often involves addressing a problem that is fairly complex and/or large, there is also an expectation that the problem is broken down into more specific and actionable issues to be addressed one-at-a-time.
Breakthrough: Raising the Standard
Within any business, there are times when the existing standard is not acceptable. Where problem-solving requires analytical thinking to understand what has changed and how to get a process back to where it once was, breakthroughs often need creative ideas to make the type of changes that will raise performance to a level not experienced before. Doing this successfully requires challenging assumptions to separate fact from deeply held opinions.
In spite of what many people think, everyone has the ability to think creatively and develop innovative approaches to business. The key is to coach and develop people to access and hone creative powers – something that is admittedly not always easy to do. The more experience one gains in a particular field or organization, the more the person tends to stick to what he or she already knows – or at least thinks he or she knows – becoming more and more set in one way of thinking. Success with breakthroughs requires breaking down this defense to get people to begin questioning what they accept as fact to see when it is actually nothing more than a strong opinion.
Analytical thinking, although critical for problem-solving, will rarely lead to innovative breakthroughs required to keep the company moving forward. In his book, Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World, Leonard Mlodinow writes that innovation requires “bottom up” thinking driven from inside the person versus the “top down” outside-driven thinking generally required for problem-solving.
An important point about the balance of analytical and breakthrough thinking is that a company cannot use innovation to stay ahead of quality and productivity problems. There must be a solid foundation of problem-solving and stable processes upon which to build and hold the breakthroughs.
Both are Required
What makes lean powerful, the combination of analytical problem-solving and innovative thinking, is also what makes the transformation so difficult. Understanding the different dimensions of improvement is fundamental to assuring a successful journey and avoiding the confusion and frustration that many companies experience.