Tag Archive | Problem solving

Lean and empowerment: Delegation vs Abdication



Some days ago I was at a meeting where we were discussing how to improve a process. The process team members and the team leader said that they felt ultimately responsible [sic] of the process performance and requested more authority to test their ideas and do changes. This proposal is very well aligned with Lean principles like:

  1. Involve front line in improving their work
  2. Promote learning through repeated practice in solving problems

So we scheduled a meeting to present the idea to the area director and define how to give the team more freedom to try things and learn. To our surprise (well, not really), the area director refused to do so. Her arguments were “I want to keep control because I’m ok with delegating, but not with abdicating”. Off with their heads!

This situation is easy to find. Not every manager is ready to move from the classic thinking trio: “command and control” + “experts own improvement” + “compliance at any cost” to Lean management principles. The presence of these ideas is a very good predictor of problems during a Lean transformation, so please beware if you hear things like “control”, “this is too risky”, “do whatever it takes” or anything similar.

However, the area director was right in some way. How? Managers have to delegate and stop telling people what to do. Telling people what to do takes away responsibility from the person. But managers still have a job in Lean:

  • Ask questions that provoke the right thinking
  • Understand problems by observing the process (at the gemba)
  • Challenge, enable and remove obstacles for workers while they are solving problems

The right move 2.png

In other words, “abdicating” in the sense of disappearing from the gemba, asking nothing, hiring Lean experts and asking them to do the improvement work for you, ignoring the process, avoiding coaching, etc… IS NOT AN OPTION. If we use the classic RACI matrix, managers must move from Responsible (do everything, take all decisions) to Accountable (make sure things happen, help those doing the job). Follow this Wikipedia link to the RACI matrix for more information (link here).

And now, a very important final warning:


Middle managers are a common source of problems during Lean transformations. They are typically hard to convince and, when they try Lean, it is not unusual to see them go back to classic thinking after some days / weeks / months. Why? It’s a “delegation” problem.

Lean transformations usually start at the gemba: operators, analysts, technicians… those people whose boss is a middle manager. Middle managers learn how to empower their people and give them freedom to try and learn. But the boss of a middle manager is a director, who has never been exposed to Lean and still uses the classic “command and control” style. Long story short: the middle manager feels he has lost power/influence/capacity because decisions are taken either by his people or his boss. He might think he is not useful anymore and might be fired. This situation is extremely dangerous for the Lean transformation.

That’s why education and communication are so important in Lean. Directors must be trained in Lean and know what to expect. Managers must have the opportunity to explain the Lean transformation at their area to their bosses and the new way a great manager looks like with Lean. This is REALLY critical for Lean success.

PDCA: is it REALLY important?

PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycles are one of the most important parts of lean, because improvement is a cycle (learn more here).

I am often asked if all steps are really important or if the sequence truly matters. The short answer is YES. The long answer is YES, because:

  • No “Plan” –> you are working without a goal. This creates useless tasks, repetitive and redundant testing and, even worse, nobody will really know if things are going ok or not. If you don’t have a goal, there is no standard definition of “good” or “success”. In other words, you don’t have a hypothesis. It is also difficult to have a motivated investigation team if they don’t have a clue of the goal of their work.
  • No “Do” –> you might have great plans and a very clear goal, but you will not learn until you do experiments and prove/refute your hypothesis (learn more here). This problem usually happens with very complex issues, inexperienced people or high-risk situations (“I’m scared to try”). The effect is often called “paralysis by analysis”.
  • No “Check” –> testing results are incompletely or not analyzed at all. Learning will not happen and/or conclusions will be wrong.
  • No “Act” –> working standards are not updated. Knowledge is not incorporated to regular work and the company is condemned to repeat the same errors again and again.

As a summary:


Root cause analysis Rule #3


This week I’ve seen a problem that happens (sadly) all the time.

Imagine a company / department / team that has a problem (e. g. equipment failure that could impact the product quality). People who work at the work center and their immediate supervision meet at the gemba and agree how to investigate the problem. Some ask their managers if it is ok if they investigate, management says “of course, we believe in people, you are the experts, we trust you”. The team thinks, develops ideas, tests, learns together (e.g. “what are the equipment failure modes?”, “how could we detect them?”, “how can we know is this error has happened?”, “how can we prove our hypothesis right or wrong?”, “how can we evaluate if the product is still good?”). They discover the root cause of the problem and develop an action plan to avoid it in the future.

They call a meeting to share their learning with the site directors and then….. shit happened. I’ll list the sad list of problems:

  • Directors came to the meeting with their own root cause analysis (of course, none of them had been at the work center or had spoken with any of the workers). It was a nice PowerPoint Ishikawa.
  • Directors developed their own action plan. It was a wonderful MS Project file.
  • The first time a team member talked at the meeting was 15 minutes after the meeting had started.
  • The team’s improvement ideas were ignored. No director asked about their analysis or improvement action plan. The team had spent more than 20 hours in 2 days doing their investigation.
  • Most of the meeting time was used by management to show why their ideas were great. 2 team members tried to talk and make a point about their ideas, but they were ignored. The team stayed in silence the rest of the meeting.
  • One director finished the meeting asking: “But, what do you think about this?” Another one said she was very happy to see the team working together. Nobody else said a word.
  • When leaving the meeting, one worker said “I’ve learned something. Never think by yourself.”

Meeting minutes:

always right 2

Director actions were implemented and the problem happened again 3 days afterwards.

This story is an example of one of the most important questions about problem solving: “what is the role of management in problem solving?” The tricky part is to see the difference between “supporting” and “doing somebody else’s job”. Remember rule #3: Problems must be solved by those who do the job. How can we do this? Let’s listen to the experts:

Management must move from “telling what to do” to “asking questions that provoke the right thinking”. Telling people what to do takes away responsibility from the person. Management main goals are a) find and frame problems by observing (at the gemba) front line learning and b) challenge, enable and remove obstacles for front line while they are solving problems.

Daniel T. Jones, Lean Conference 2014

The most important question from the management side is “What are your problems?” Management work is not to solve problems by themselves, but to develop problem solvers. Otherwise, you’ll become a manager like this:


Lean principle #5: Seek perfection


Lean looks for the perfect process: perfect value with no waste. That’s why “seek perfection” is one of the lean principles defined by the Lean Enterprise Institute (learn more here). Perfection means providing customers with a safe product (Health), of high value (Quality), on time and in the right quantity (Delivery) and affordable (Cost). Additionally, the process must develop problem solvers who improve the product and increase value (People) and take care of the community and the environment (Morale)

Some might say that aiming for perfection but thinking that improvement is a never-ending journey is a contradiction. Is it possible to believe in the Lean Principle #4: Improvement is a cycle (the “PDCA” principle) and pursuing perfection at the same time? Yes!

There are 2 reasons why perfection and trial-and-error philosophies are compatible:

  1. Perfection is a never ending journey: The perfect use of resources is theoretically impossible (link). We can get better and better but reducing waste to zero would need an immense amount of resources (which is waste itself). Using math terms, improvement tends asymptotically to perfection.
  2. Customer needs change over time: In other words, customers raise the bar constantly and request new features and products. Even if the perfect process was possible, we need to change direction and adapt constantly to the new definition of good.

In summary, Lean is about adapting processes to customer needs, all the time, no matter how quick they change. The better one company adapts to customers and the environment, the more successful it will be.

Picture by: http://joyreactor.com/post/405771

Best of @leanvoodoo 2015

This is a list of the most read articles of 2015. Enjoy!

















Thank you for your time and support!

See you in 2016!


Innovation: Begin with the end in mind

Ford horse

Henry Ford knew this very well back in the 1930s: great innovation begins with the end in mind.

Innovation is about implementing new ideas for simple solutions in order to generate value for customers (learn more here). Keeping the end in mind is key for innovation because it forces you to think how to create value. It’s all about thinking the perfect solution, also known as Ideal Final Result (IFR). The IFR is the description of the best possible solution for a problem without caring about resources or constraints. Idealization is the mental process that imagines that IFR and concentrates in finding real value and not in eliminating problems or effects. Let’s see the lawn mower example:

140704_EM_GreeninguptheGrass_1If we think about a lawn mower, it is easy to find room for improvement: they are noisy, they use fuel, they have potentially dangerous blades, they need maintenance. We could work hard to improve all these things to create a better product. That’s the classic (not IFR) approach which focuses in problems and effects.

However, using idealization, we must concentrate in customer value. What does the customer want? A lawn mower? No. People don’t buy lawn mowers, they buy perfect grass. The Ideal Final Result is beautiful and splendid grass, no matter how you get it. Artificial grass, real grass that does not grow or selling your backyard are solutions that fit perfectly well here. You have probably noticed that we are not talking about lawn mowers anymore. That’s really the point of using IFR: it opens your mind to a broader range of ideas.

The use of idealization / IFR starts with perfection and looks for ways to eliminate barriers (real or perceived) that prevent us from reaching that ideal state. It is like a kids maze game: we start from the prize and move backwards.


Warning! The search of an Ideal Final Result does not mean that you have to ignore your customer’s opinions and preferences. It’s just the opposite: your knowledge about the customer must be so deep that you can clearly differentiate creating value (what the customer really wants) from just solving problems.

Pictures from:

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