Tag Archives: problem solving

The Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions

There are many factors that are important to effectively practice the management improvement ideas I have discussed in this blog for over a decade. One of the most important is a culture that encourages critical thinking as well as challenging claims, decisions and assumptions.

I discussed this idea some in: Customers Are Often Irrational. There is a difference between saying people wish to have their desires met and people act in the manner to maximize the benefits they wish to receive.

It is important to study customer’s choice and learn from them. But being deceived by what their choice mean is easier than is usually appreciated. Often the decision made is contrary to the ideal choice based on their beliefs. It is often poor decision making not an indication that really they want a different result than they express (as revealed versus stated preference can show). People that ignore the evidence behind climate change and condemn coastal areas to severe consequences don’t necessarily prefer the consequences that their decision leads to. It may well be that decision to ignore the evidence is not based on a desire to suffer long term consequences in order to get short term benefits. It may well be just an inability to evaluate evidence in an effective way (fear of challenging ourselves to learn about matters we find difficult often provides a strong incentive to avoid doing so).

Knowing the difference between choosing short term benefits over long term consequences and a failure to comprehend the long term consequences is important. Just as in this example, many business decisions have at the root a desire to pretend we can ignore the consequences of our decisions and a desire to accept falsehoods that let us avoid trying to cope with the difficult problems.

photo of me with a blackboard in my father's office

Photo of me and my artwork in my father’s office by Bill Hunter

It is important to clearly articulate the details of the decision making process. We need to note the actual criticism (faulty logic, incorrect beliefs/assumptions…) that results in what some feel is a poor conclusion. But we seem to find shy away from questioning faulty claims (beliefs that are factually incorrect – that vaccines don’t save people from harm, for example) or lack of evidence (no data) or poor reasoning (drawing unsupported conclusions from a well defined set of facts).

Critical thinking is important to applying management improvement methods effectively. It is important to know when decisions are based on evidence and when decisions are not based on evidence. It can be fine to base some decisions on principles that are not subject to rational criticism. But it is important to understand the thought process that is taken to make each decision. If we are not clear on the basis (evidence or opinion regardless of evidence) we cannot be as effective in targeting our efforts to evaluate the results and continually improve the processes in our organizations.

Describing the decision as “irrational” is so imprecise that it isn’t easy to evaluate how much merit the criticism has. If specific facts are called into question or logical fallacies within the decision making process are explained it is much more effective at providing specific items to explore to evaluate whether the criticism has merit.

When specific criticisms are made clear then those supporting such a decision can respond to the specific issues raised. And in cases where the merits of one course of action cannot be agreed to then such critical thought can often be used to create measures to be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the decision based on the results. Far too often the results are not examined to determine if they actually achieved what was intended. And even less often is care taken to examine the unintended consequences of the actions that were taken.

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Children are Amazingly Creative At Solving Problems

This story at NPR reminded my of Russell Ackoff talking about the creativity kids show in solving problems* – and how school often stifles that creativity.

Preschoolers Outsmart College Students In Figuring Out Gadgets

Children try a variety of novel ideas and unusual strategies to get the gadget to go. For example, Gopnik says, “If the child sees that a square block and a round block independently turn the music on, then they’ll take a square and take a circle and put them both on the machine together to make it go, even though they never actually saw the experimenters do that.”

This is flexible, fluid thinking — children exploring an unlikely hypothesis. Exploratory learning comes naturally to young children, says Gopnik. Adults, on the other hand, jump on the first, most obvious solution and doggedly stick to it, even if it’s not working. That’s inflexible, narrow thinking. “We think the moral of the study is that maybe children are better at solving problems when the solution is an unexpected one,” says Gopnik.

And that flexibility may disappear earlier than we think. Gopnik’s lab has also compared toddlers and kindergartners in doing these tests of abstract thinking, and found that the diaper set are actually better at focusing on the relationship between the objects, rather than on the things.

To those, like me, that use Deming’s ideas to help understand and improve management it is apparent these findings relate directly to two areas of Deming’s management system: psychology and theory of knowledge (how we know what we know).

Understanding how our psychology limits are effectiveness can be used to counter those tendencies.

And as Daniel Boorstin said:

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Understanding the limits of our knowledge and our tendency to become rigid in our thinking can help us avoid blinding ourselves to options. Our brains overrule options without us consciously even knowing that is happening; it takes effort to overcome this tendency.

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Root Cause, Interactions, Robustness and Design of Experiments

Eric Budd asked on The W. Edwards Deming Institute group on LinkedIn

If observed performance/behavior in a system is a result of the interactions between components–and variation exists in those components–the best root cause explanation we might hope for is a description of the interactions and variation at a moment in time. How can we make such an explanation useful?

A single root cause is rare. Normally you can look at the question a bit differently see the scope a bit differently and get a different “root cause.” In my opinion “root cause” is more a decision about what is an effective way to improve the system right now rather than finding a scientifically valid “root cause.”

Sometimes it might be obvious combination which is an issue so must be prevented. In such a case I don’t think interaction root cause is hard – just list out the conditions and then design something to prevent that in the future.

Often I think you may find that the results are not very robust and this time we caught the failure because of u = 11, x = 3, y = 4 and z =1. But those knowledge working on the process can tell the results are not reliable unless x = 5 or 6. And if z is under 3 things are likely to go wrong. and if u is above 8 and x is below 5 and y is below 5 things are in trouble…

To me this often amounts to designing systems to be robust and able to perform with the variation that is likely to happen. And for those areas where the system can’t be made robust for some variation then designing things so that variation doesn’t happen to the system (mistake proofing processes, for example).

In order to deal with interaction, learn about interaction and optimize results possible due to interactions I believe the best method is to use design of experiments (DoE) – factorial experiments.

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What is the Explanation Going to be if This Attempt Fails?

Occasionally during my career I have been surprised by new insights. One of the things I found remarkable was how quickly I thought up a new explanation for what could have caused a problem when the previously expressed explanation was proven wrong. After awhile I stopped finding it remarkable and found it remarkable how long it took me to figure out that this happened.

I discovered this as I programmed software applications. You constantly have code fail to run as you expect and so get plenty of instances to learn the behavior I described above. While I probably added to my opportunities to learn by being a less than stellar coder I also learned that even stellar coders constantly have to iterate through the process of creating code and seeing if it works, figuring out why it didn’t and trying again.

The remarkable thing is how easily I could come up with an new explanation. Often nearly immediately upon what I expected to work failing to do so. And one of the wonderful things about software code is often you can then make the change in 10 minutes and a few minutes later see if it worked (I am guessing my brain kept puzzling over the ideas involved and was ready with a new idea when I was surprised by failure).

When I struggled a bit to find an initial explanation I found myself thinking, “this has to be it” often because of two self reinforcing factors.

First, I couldn’t think of anything else that would explain it. Sometimes you will think right away of 4 possible issues that could cause this problem. But, when I struggled to find any and then finally came up with an idea it feels like if there was another possibility I should have thought of it while struggling to figure out what I finally settled on.

Second, the idea often seems to explain exactly what happened, and it often feels like “of course it didn’t work, what was I thinking I need to do x.” This often turns out to be true, doing x solves the problem and you move on. But a remarkable percentage of the time, say even just 10%, it doesn’t. And then I would find myself almost immediately thinking, of course I need to do y. Even when 10 seconds ago I was convinced there was no other possibility.

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Manufacturing Skills Gap or Management Skills Gap?

I stumble across articles discussing the problem of manufacturers having difficulty finding workers with the skills they need (in the USA largely, but elsewhere too) somewhat regularly. While it is true that companies have this problem, I think looking at the problem in that way might not be the most insightful view. Is the problem just that potential workers don’t having the right skills or the result of a long term management skills gap?

To me, the current manufacturing skills gap results directly from short term thinking and disrespect for workers practiced by those with management skills shortages over the last few decades. Those leading the manufacturing firms have shown they will flee the USA with the latest change in the wind, chasing short term bonuses and faulty spreadsheet thinking. Expecting people to spend lots of time and money to develop skills that would be valuable for the long term at manufacturing firms given this management skills shortage feels like putting the blame in the wrong place to me.

Why should workers tie their futures to short term thinking managers practicing disrespect for people? Especially when those managers seem to just find ways to blame everyone else for their problems. As once again they do in blaming potential workers for their hiring problem. The actions taken based on the collective management skill shortage in the manufacturing industry over the last few decades has contributed greatly to the current state.

If managers had all been managing like Toyota managers for the last 30 years I don’t think the manufacturing skill gap would be significant. The management skill gap is more important than the manufacturing skill gap in my opinion. To some extent the manufacturing skill gap could still exist, market are in a constant state of flux, so gaps appear. But if their wasn’t such a large management skill gap it would be a minor issue, I believe.

That still leaves companies today having to deal with the current marketplace to try and find skilled workers. But I think instead of seeing the problem as solely a supplier issue (our suppliers can’t provide us what we need) manufacturing firms would be better served to look at their past, and current, management skills gap and fix that problem. They have control over that problem. And fixing that will provide a much more solid long term management base to cope and prosper in the marketplace.

Another management issue may well be the hiring process itself. As I have written about many times, the recruitment process is highly inefficient and ineffective. When you see workers as long term partners the exact skills they have today are much less significant than their ability to meet the organizations needs over the long term. In general, information technology recruiting has the worst case of focusing on silly skills that are really not important to hiring the right people, but this also can affect manufacturing hiring.

Related: IT Talent Shortage, or Management Failure?Dee Hock on HiringManufacturing Jobs Increasing for First Time Since 1998 in the USA (Sept 2010)Building a Great Workforcemanufacturing jobs have been declining globally (including China) for 2 decadesImproving the Recruitment Process

Visual Management with Brown M&Ms

When you hear about rock musicians having a clause in their contract that they must have a bowl of M&Ms in their dressing room with all the brown M&Ms removed you could be excused for thinking: what will these crazy celebrities do next. Well it might just be those crazy celebrities are using visual management (granted I think there could be better methods [a bit more mistake proofing where the real problems would be manifest] but it is an interesting idea). Basically if they didn’t have the bowl of M&Ms, or if the brown M&Ms were not removed, they could distrust the thoroughness of the contractors. And they would check to see what other, actually important, contractual requirements were not followed.

Righting The Wrongs: Van Halen and M&Ms

The staff at venues in large cities were used to technically-complex shows like Van Halen’s. The band played in venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden or Atlanta’s The Omni without incident. But the band kept noticing errors (sometimes significant errors) in the stage setup in smaller cities. The band needed a way to know that their contract had been read fully. And this is where the “no brown M&Ms” came in. The band put a clause smack dab in the middle of the technical jargon of other riders: “Article 126: There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation”. That way, the band could simply enter the arena and look for a bowl of M&Ms in the backstage area. No brown M&Ms? Someone read the contract fully, so there were probably no major mistakes with the equipment. A bowl of M&Ms with the brown candies? No bowl of M&Ms at all? Stop everyone and check every single thing, because someone didn’t bother to read the contract. Roth himself said:

“So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

Related: The Importance of Making Problems VisibleVisual Work InstructionsGood Process Improvement PracticesGreat Visual Instruction Example

Nigel Marsh: How to Make Work-Life Balance Work

“I want you to pause for a minute, you wretched weaklings, and take stock of your miserable existence.” Nigel Marsh paraphrasing (or quoting, I can’t find the source though) the advice that Saint Benedict gave his startled followers.

I wrote some about focusing on your whole life recently: Work and Life.

Related: Medieval Peasants had More Vacation TimePositivity and Joy in WorkWe don’t Have to Accept DespairThe Importance of Management Improvement

Airport Security with Lean Management Principles

The ‘Israelification’ of airports: High security, little bother

We [Israel] said, ‘We’re not going to do this. You’re going to find a way that will take care of security without touching the efficiency of the airport.”

“The whole time, they are looking into your eyes — which is very embarrassing. But this is one of the ways they figure out if you are suspicious or not. It takes 20, 25 seconds,” said Sela. Lines are staggered. People are not allowed to bunch up into inviting targets for a bomber who has gotten this far.

Lean thinking: customer focus, value stream (don’t take actions that destroy the value stream to supposedly meet some other goal), respect for people [this is a much deeper concept than treat employees with respect], evidence based decision making (do what works – “look into your eyes”), invest in your people (Israel’s solution requires people that are good at their job and committed to doing a good job – frankly it requires engaged managers which is another thing missing from our system).

The USA solution if something suspicious is found in bag screening? Evacuate the entire airport terminal. Very poor design (it is hard to over-emphasis how poor this is). It will take time to design fixes into physical space, as it always does in lean thinking. It has been nearly 10 years. Where is the progress?

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A screener at Ben-Gurion has a pair of better options. First, the screening area is surrounded by contoured, blast-proof glass that can contain the detonation of up to 100 kilos of plastic explosive. Only the few dozen people within the screening area need be removed, and only to a point a few metres away.

Second, all the screening areas contain ‘bomb boxes’. If a screener spots a suspect bag, he/she is trained to pick it up and place it in the box, which is blast proof. A bomb squad arrives shortly and wheels the box away for further investigation.

This is a very small simple example of how we can simply stop a problem that would cripple one of your airports,” Sela said.

Lean thinking: design the workspace to the task at hand. Obviously done in one place and not the other. Also it shows the thought behind designing solutions that do not destroy the value stream unlike the approach taken in the USA. And the better solution puts a design in place that gives primacy to safety: the supposed reason for all the effort.
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The Problem is Likely Not the Person Pointing Out The Problem

I believe the problem is likely not the person pointing out the problem. Now granted I have often been that person. Part of what I have been tasked with doing in various jobs is finding ways to improve the performance of the organization. I was told the managers wanted to hear about problems from someone working there, so I was asked to do so. What it often meant was they wanted someone to fix the problems they thought existed not point out the problem was the systems, not the people forced to deal with the systems.

I have learned managers are a lot happier if I just shut up about all the problems that should be addressed. There are happy if I can fix what I can (though really they seem to care much more about not being negative than any actually improving) and just be quiet about anything else – otherwise you are seen as “negative.”

How to Manage Whining with no Problem Solving

As individuals begin to focus on the negative and don’t engage in problem solving, this behavior is unacceptable

The first time, it is a venting and commonly a subject matter problem. The next time we have a trend occurring, and this is where we need to coach our team player to be constructive process improvement artists. If the whining continues, we may be dealing with a negative attitude which has begun to permeate our colleague.

explore the previous solution’s outcomes; help the individual to be empowered to resolve the issue. If it is absolutely above the teammate authority, offer to help and commit to actions.

I think it is right to focus the effort on problem solving to improve the situation. I fear that far too often though “As individuals begin to focus on the negative and don’t engage in problem solving, this behavior is unacceptable.” turns into ignore problems. Yes, I know that isn’t what the post is suggesting. I am just saying that the easy “solution” that is taken far too often is to focus on the words “negative” and “unacceptable.”

I believe the focus should be on “broken systems are unacceptable.” I would prefer problem solving to address the issues but a culture of ignoring issues and seeing those that don’t as being negative is often the real problem (not the person that points out the problems).

I have discussed this topic in some posts previously: Ignoring Unpleasant Truths is Often Encouraged and Bring Me Problems, and Solutions if You Have Them. Once I am given those problems I agree with you completely. Use them as an opportunity to coach effective problem solving and process improvement strategies to improve the situation. And to develop people.

Often the problem is not the person at all. The organization never adopts fixes. People have learned that they can bang their head against the wall and then never get approval for the fix or they can just whine. Blaming them for choosing whining is not useful. I don’t see how Asking 5 whys you get to blaming the employee, except in very rare cases for not problem solving. It seems to me the issue is almost always going to lay with management: for why people are frustrated with system results and are not problem solving.
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Nice Non-techinical Control Chart Webcast

This very brief introduction to control charts by PQ Systems provides a very watchable non-technical overview. Getting people to understand variation is important, and not easy. This video is one more quick reminder for those still trying to incorporate an understanding of variation into their view of the world.

The idea is simple. But actually thinking with an understanding of variation people find difficult, it seems to me. It is very easy to continue to revert to special cause thinking (who did it? is often a sign of special cause thinking) – thinking that results are due to a special (unique) cause, instead of as the result of a system (which includes lots of common causes).

The value I see in this video is as a reminder for all those trying to operate with an understanding of variation. It is also a decent introduction, but much, much more would be needed to get people to understand why this matters and what is needed.

Related: Control Charts in Health CareHow to Create a Control Chart for Seasonal or Trending DataMeasurement and Data CollectionSix Sigma and Common SenseEuropean Blackout, not Human Error

Bring Me Solutions Not Problems

My comments on: No Problem Without a Solution [I removed the broken link]

“Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.” – Taiichi Ohno

I understand that most managers feel that their employees should not bring them problems. Instead, expressed in the most positive way, employees should fix things or bring possible improvements. However, I think that is poor management.

I understand there may well be more detail than you provide that adds a more sensible (but more complex) reaction that stated in your post about your situation. However, there are many example, of bosses that expect their people not to bring them “bad news” not to bring them “problems” and that attitude is exactly wrong in my opinion.

What they are saying is: if you know of a problem but don’t know of a solution I would rather have my company continue to have that problem than admit some of my staff don’t know how to fix it (and then have to deal with it myself – maybe then having to accept responsibility for results instead of just blaming you if I am never told and there is a problem later…). I think that is setting exactly the wrong expectations.

Employees should fix things. They should bring solutions to managers to improve things that might be out of their ability to fix. But if they know of a problem and not a solution and a manager tells the employee they don’t want to be brought problems then I don’t want that manager.

If an employee never learns how to find possible solutions themselves that is not a good sign. But it is much, much better to bring problems to management’s attention than to fail to do so because they know the manager thinks that doing so is weak. It is the attitude that problems are not to be shared that is weak, in my opinion.

Related: Management Training ProgramEuropean Blackout: Human Error or System ErrorHow to ImproveRespect for People (Understanding Psychology)Don’t Empower

Common Cause Variation

Every system has variation. Common cause variation is the variation due to the current system. Dr. Deming increased his estimate of variation due to the system (common cause variation) to 97% (earlier in his life he cited figures around 80%). Special cause variation is that due to some special (not part of the system) cause.

The control chart (in addition to other things) helps managers to avoid tampering (taking action on common cause variation as though it were a special cause). In order to take action against the results of common cause variation the performance of the system the system itself must be changed. A systemic improvement approach is needed.

To take action against a special cause, that isolated special cause can be examined. Unfortunately that approach (the one we tend to use almost all the time) is the wrong approach for systemic problems (which Deming estimated at 97% of the problems).

That doesn’t mean it is not possible to improve results by treating all problems as some special event. Examining each failure in isolation is just is not as effective. Instead examine the system that produced those results is the best method. The control chart provides a measurement of the system. The chart will show what the process is capable of producing and how much variation is in the system now.

If you would like to reduce the variation picking the highest data values (within the control limits) and trying to study them to figure out why they are so high is not effective. Instead you should study the whole system and figure out what systemic changes to make. One method to encourage this type of thinking is asking why 5 times. It seeks to find the systemic reasons for individual results.

Related: SPC – HistoryUnderstanding Variation by Tom Nolan and Lloyd Provost (highly recommended) – Deming on Management