Sleeping with the enemy

While hosting a colleague and her husband for dinner last weekend, somehow the conversation drifted to the topic of strange pets people keep. My colleague’s spouse shared the hands-down winner, a story of an acquaintance – we’ll call her Kelly – who was so attached to her pet python that she slept in bed with it. Everything was going well until she noticed the snake had stopped eating. Concerned, she took the python to the vet, who told her why: Kelly’s bedfellow was starving itself for the big prey – her!

Mrinalini Gadkari Ground Zero, NYC
Author Mrinalini Gadkari in Manhattan

We might not know it, but we’re cuddled next to hungry snakes every day: The defects in our systems and processes lurking beneath the reworks we perform and roundabouts we take. Toyota Motor Corp. has a way to find those: An “Andon” cord, which flags a problem, prompts a hunt for its root cause and potentially pauses production if it can’t be solved immediately. When Lean Enterprise Institute CEO John Shook came to our Master of Business Operational Excellence program in October, he mentioned that the cord is pulled about 15,000 times a day at Toyota’s factory in Kentucky. “Better safe than sorry” seems to be their motto.

We rarely look at the process as a whole, instead we fix one incident and move on. We do root-cause analyses and fix problems, but do we really track if those changes have succeeded? Most root-cause analyses become a part of files and folders opened only when a regulatory agency visits the organization. In the meantime, how many times do we allow errors and defects to pass on to the customer?

Reworks are like enemies in disguise. Keep them out of bed.

Understanding the Problem

Picture this:  You’re a leader in an organization, perusing financial and safety reports compiled by managers tasked to boost sales, cut costs, and grow safety and quality. In one report, you see exactly the opposite happening. So what do you do?

You call that manager, have him or her explain why this is happening and he or she insists: “There’s nothing to worry about. That has happened before, it was taken care of and this time it won’t be any different.” You hand out targets and a deadline and ask to stay updated. Case closed.

A great lean leader takes a different path early on in this process. The manager is called in, but the first priority is understanding every messy detail of the problem and making sure he or she does as well. Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a problem is “a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution.” The word “solution” isn’t last by accident.

While many of us are equipped to be “firefighters” and immediately jump to solutions, that’s tantamount to giving fever-suppressing paracetamol to a hospital patient. The symptom is resolved but the underlying cause is just waiting to come back.

First, we must recognize the type of problem at hand.

Author John Shook in his book Managing to Learn defines two types of problems:

Shook Problem Types
John Shook's Problem Types

It is important to understand that the presenting problem e.g. increase costs, a safety hazard, decreasing sales in some way relates to the way work is designed or being done.