Tag Archives: problem solving

Expand the View of the System to Find Ways to Improve Results

Here is an example of improvement made possible by expanding the view of the system (and viewing the results from the perspective of the customer instead of just looking at internal process measures).

I was working to improve the processing time for court orders of child support (in the retirement system for the USA federal government). The time to process the court orders was taking far too long (longer than legally allowed). The first process improvements took place in the office (there were many easy ways to improve the process). In a few months things we finally starting to be under control and it was obvious the results were still far from acceptable. Looking at the whole process the time delay due to our office had been nearly entirely eliminated.

However the total time was still far too long. That time was not under our control, so how could it be our problem? Just because you do not control a portion of the process does not mean you cannot influence those results. By using a system that was already in place (but was used very rarely) to have the mail go directly to us rather than to a central mail processing location I was able to improve the process by more as any internal improvements.

Madison County courthouse in London, Ohio.

Madison County courthouse in London, Ohio (Wikimedia image).

The delay from getting mail forwarded to our location from the central mailing location was many weeks long. I was able to have the orders for child support sent directly to us. Thus I was able to greatly improve the results with an improvement that was seen as not part of our system (the mail system delay before we received the orders). There are often ways to make improvements that are (or seem) outside of your area of responsibility and control.

By expanding the system view and looking at the results of the entire system it is often possible to find improvements that are not possible by only looking at “your” system. These changes can sometimes be more challenging to accomplish as they may require convincing others to make changes.

Related: Quality of the Entire Customer ExperienceThe Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging AssumptionsActionable MetricsGood Project Management Practices

Interview of Bill Hunter, Brian Joiner and Peter Scholtes on Better Management Practices

Interview with Bill Hunter, Brian Joiner and Peter Scholtes (listen to the interview) on a Public Affair, National Public Radio about improving management practices in the USA. The interview is over 30 years old now but the better management ideas are as true today as they were then.

Sadly we have not improved management practices based on these ideas very much. There have been improvements in how many organizations are managed but those improvements are so slow that fundamental problems remain serious problems decades later.

Brian Joiner

Brian Joiner (quotes from the interview):

You cannot really produce quality in any cost competitive way by relying on inspection to achieve quality. The only way you can really achieve quality in the modern sense is by improving all the processes that go to deliver that product or service. And that requires that you study those processes. And when you study them you very often need to collect and analyze data to find what are the causes of problems.

[We place] a great deal of emphasis on identifying the causes of problems rather than shooting from the hip and jumping to solutions before you really know what the problems are…
Many many dollars, many many hours of time are wasted on “solutions” that are not really solutions.

Bill Hunter:

The problem that employees at Motor Equipment were aware of at the very beginning of this whole business, and for a long time previous – I mean years, was that the city of Madison did not have a preventative maintenance program for vehicles because a mayor said, many years ago said “we fix trucks and other things when they break and then we will save money because we don’t be fiddling with them before.

Well the people out there realized the city was just losing money with this policy so they gathered data, they put it together, they put together a solid case that nobody could argue with that the city should have a preventative maintenance program.

They were able to put together a presentation to the mayor and city council people making their case that there should be a preventative maintenance program. The mayor and the city council people there listened to this presentation of the data and they conclusion was a good proposal.

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The Best Form of Fire Fighting is None at All

The best form of problem solving is to avoid problems altogether.

At the point you have a “fire” in your organizaiton you have to fight it. But it is better to create systems that avoid fires taking hold in the first place.*

This is a simple idea. Still many organizations would perform better if they took this simple idea to heart. Many organizations suffer from problems, not that they should solve better, but problems they should have avoided altogether.

Lake with Mountain in the Background

By John Hunter, see more of my trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.

A stronger management system based on continual improvement using experimentation based practices (PDSA etc.) while viewing the organization as a system should reduce the need for heroic action to fix problems.

Related: Add Constraints to Processes CarefullyRighter IncentivizationThe Edge-case ExcuseThe Trouble with Incentives: They WorkPracticing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at Apple

* This idea is sensible for management systems and cities; for forests that have evolved complex ecosystems in which fires play a roll it may well not be a wise strategy (as the US Forest Service has learned).

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 choices customers make and learn from them. But being deceived by what their choices 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 (LinkedIn broke the link with a register wall so I removed the link):

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