Continuous Improvement, Gemba Management, Problem Solving

How is continuous improvement practiced in real life?

I was watching a Ted Talk video with chef José Andrés where he described how a team of chefs fed Puerto Rico after hurricane María.  I admire him for his work in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, but now after his work in Puerto Rico with the World Central Kitchen, I am thankful and consider him a hero.  The entire talk is fascinating but there are parts that resonate in me for the simplicity on which he and his support team did problem-solving and continuous improvement in a crisis and beat the huge federal structure on bringing food for the people in need.

Some of his words remind me things that we do while practicing continuous improvement:  “Let’s not plan, let’s not meet, let’s start cooking.”  and  “All of a sudden, big problems become very simple, low-hanging fruit solutions, only by doing, not planning and meeting in a very big building”.

One common situation for managers is to make decisions, is what we do every day.  Some managers still make decisions based on month-end reports discussion during a staff meeting.  Those reports are like a post-mortem analysis, they only say what happened in the past.  Any action taken may or may not work to change the subject targeted on those reports.

The best way to know a situation first hand is going to where the action is, lean practitioners, call that place gemba.  Gemba is whenever the process we want to improve happens, the production floor, office, laboratory, any place where we need to practice continuous improvement.

I am very visual, for me, the best way to understand something is by taking a look at it.  I use charts and other visual methods to communicate status but when I am facing a problem, the only way for me is to go where the problem is and observe.  For me going to the gemba and see what is happening is a natural thing.  Even if does not feel that natural for you, it is possible to do it and it works on every environment.

What José Andrés did in Puerto Rico was just that, he went to the gemba observed the situation and took decisions on the spot.  Their ideas execution was also a check for their effectiveness and the trigger for changes to adapt to the changing situation or priorities.  That is how we practice continuous improvement at its best!

Problem Solving

Miscommunication or just lack of follow up?

Many times when there is a misunderstanding, communication is to blame.  It happens very often that people don’t listen to understand but to reply.  Technology adds more things to the mix to create communication problems.

Last week during a meeting, a fellow manager explained how a supervisor following his instructions end up leading his team to overproduced an item that we produce very rarely.  Then he added that maybe his instructions were not clear enough, perhaps he misunderstood the conversation during the meeting we discussed the situation.

The meeting my peer was talking about is held on a weekly basis with the participation of 10-12 people.  Each of them represents a very specific portion of our operations.  Some, turn their attention to their mobile devices as soon as they talk.  While doing this, they can miss important pieces of information that can be related to the subject they brought to the table.  They use the phone either to send instructions to their direct reports, either by email or text or just to read emails.

Personally, I hate emails and text messages.  Not all of them, but those that interrupt the effective communication of critical instructions.  Sometimes an email is not enough to communicate critical instructions, much less a text message.  I have seen many times that people use emails or texts as their only way to “communicate” instructions.  The follow-up conversation is very important to ensure appropriate execution, it helps to clarify doubts or provide additional information.  Not all people are good following written instructions, for some, it is better to talk, at least by phone.

Although there are times when there is no other way but to send emails when possible talking face to face should be the preferred way of communication.  Face to face is not a warranty of effective communication either, but at least you can ask questions and receive an answer faster.  Also with the chance to see people’s reaction, you can listen to their words and see their body language.

The approach to fix communication problems is no different from the one used to fix any problem, go back to the basics.  Communication is always better when we use the basic principles: deliver a complete and clear message, be concise, use facts to support the message, use examples if possible.  Another basic thing, real communication is two ways, it has a sender and a receiver; allow the receiver to send back to you his/her ideas, concerns or questions.  Doing the basics is not enough, follow-up is critical; circle back to those you reach out and make sure the execution of the instruction is as planned.


Lean Tools, Problem Solving

How I do Root Cause Analysis?

The other day browsing through my twitter account I read a tweet from Mark Graban about a problem-solving tip for 5 Whys: “it’s not always magically five whys to get to a possible root cause”.  That tweet and some of the subsequent conversation reminds me of an experience I had recently.  image2

One activity that we have been doing a lot lately is root cause analysis. Our quality program requires the completion of a root cause analysis to support all corrective and preventive actions proposed.  After our most recent third-party audit, we decided to complete an analysis for all the observations reported, including some issues we identified as a group but not pointed out by the auditor. When the Quality team recruited me to facilitate the sessions, I was happy to help.

My only doubt was which tool to use, the Five Whys or Fish Bone.   I decided to do both, which immediately raised up questions from my fellow managers, why both? Are we are doing the same analysis twice? Which one is more effective? Honestly, I did not know the answer to any of those questions but I proposed the group to start doing both for a couple of non-compliances and then after we all have a feel of it, decide which way to go.

Practice makes perfection, after a couple of exercises I was able to tell that it was better to do the Fish Bone to identify all possible causes, and then the 5 whys to find each possible cause’s root. That worked for me in the past, and with this experience I validated it. The whole team agrees and this analysis method becomes our new standard for root cause analysis.

The team members were representative of all departments so the discussions were sometimes intense but always productive. Through brainstorming and a bit of group discussion, we were able to choose the most probable cause(s) from the fishbone based on criticality and impact on quality, cost, and delivery. For that cause or causes, we completed the five whys and just like Mark’s tweet; sometimes with two or three whys we find the root cause but in some of them we went as far as six or seven whys before we hit the root.

image1After we identified the origin of each cause or causes we create and implement the corrective actions. We also set a date in the future to meet just to check that all corrective actions were completed and verify if there is any other incident after their completion. The most important part about doing a root cause analysis is to check if we really identify the root cause of the problem. If it happens again probably we did not, which means that we have to sit down and put more efforts this time to find the real root cause.
Is good to learn to do things on our own but is even better when we can validate with other people experiences that what we are doing is good.  Thank you for the lesson Mark!