Archive | June 2015

PDCA and marshmallows

What I like the most about PDCA is that it is practical and simple, what makes it ultimately sophisticated (thanks, Leo). Simple does not equal easy, the proof is that it took the mankind millenniums to develop the scientific method.

Check out this TED video called “build a tower, build a team” (aka “the marshmallow challenge”):

The video shows very important and not so evident ideas about thinking and developing new solutions: The most important are:

  • Pure planning does not work well. The “Plan” phase of PDCA is very important, but not the most important (let’s say it is as important as the others). Planning without doing is useless. Planning without being prepared to fail and learn from the things that went wrong is naïve. Many people are trained to find the “single right solution” and then execute it. This is a wrong strategy (by the way, this is how many people think PDCA and DMAIC work. Wrong!)
  • The value of prototyping: Prototype + Refine is a great strategy. Build something that works and then make it better, so that the development team gets continuous feedback about what works well and what does not. For this, of course, it is critical to know what is your marshmallow, this is, what is your goal or the critical customer need you want to meet. It is so common to find teams who don’t really know what they are doing…
  • The importance of facilitation: The importance of the process! A development team with technical people and process people is a winning team. Diverse teams with different people of difference areas may move slower (not necessarily) but will definitely get further. The importance of people who can facilitate, organize and solve conflict is often underestimated.
  • The effect of incentives: “Incentives + High skills” lead to success most of the times but high stakes with a low level of skills might be catastrophic: everybody panics and nothing gets done. Use incentives intelligently.

All these concepts apply to Lean thinking. It is basic to know your goal (your marshmallow), use prototyping (continuous improvement), create a diverse team (respect for people) and use incentives wisely. Keep this in mind and your probabilities of success will be higher.

How to make your people think


This is a question I’m asked frequently: “Is is ok to let everybody propose anything during a problem solving session?” Mmm, absolutely! After some seconds, I typically get this other question: “But, isn’t it better to select the best ideas and concentrate only in those?”. Mmm, absolutely, again!

How is that? Because our brain thinks and develops ideas in a very special way. This is how it works:


Our brain benefits from this 2-phase process:

  • Start promoting creative and divergent thinking. Everything is valid. No idea is forbidden (just for the records, this phase does not have to be a brainstorming session necessarily, there are multiple other ways of doing this and brainstorming might not be the best one). The intent here is to break the psychological or cognitive inertia: our brain feels comfortable and likes following common patterns and solutions that have worked in the past.
  • Finish promoting practical and convergent thinking. Keep your feet on the ground. Calculate needed resources and evaluate possible barriers. The purpose here is to concentrate in those ideas that have the best effort/benefit ratio.

Like almost anything in life, a problem solving session is half technique and half art. A winning strategy in most cases is to use questions to facilitate the meeting (very similar to the coaching style). In all cases be sure that you follow the basic 3 rules of facilitation:

  • Be challenging
  • Be clear
  • Be honest

Fishbone panic


For all of you who have experienced an uncomfortable meeting trying to solve an urgent problem, don’t miss this story. Fishbone in action when the stakes are really high:

This story highlights very important ideas about problem solving:

  • Technical knowledge and cross-functional cooperation are extremely important during analysis. Always look at the problem from all possible perspectives.
  • Calm (the pilot was joking right before the landing) is key during implementation.
  • An “evident” solution (landing in water is safer) can be catastrophic.
  • Communication and information (passengers watching live the problems that the plane was experiencing) can either increase the chances of success or kill your project. Always think seriously about how you will inform others about your work.

And, of course, it helps all of us put our problems in perspective…. 🙂 Enjoy!