Leanable Moments take you inside my home life to show you how I apply Lean thinking to real-world problems. Each Leanable Moment is presented in A3 format – simply click the image to enlarge – and includes discussion focusing on the finer points of the problem solving process – the type of things they don’t necessarily teach you in Lean training! Each discussion will conclude with a summary of key lessons learned, going beyond the boundaries of just one problem to take the waste out of life.
Name one skill that is more widely applicable to life in general than the ability to improve your situation through problem solving. Despite the high degrees of relevance and value in business and personal life, the development of problem solving skills is not given a high degree of emphasis in most school curricula. I do believe that school children learn skills and information through the act of problem solving. However, learning how to solve specific problems is wholly different than learning the skill of problem solving.
The difference is context. In a school setting, it is rare when the context for a problem is not provided by the teaching materials. Typically, problems are pre-defined and the methods required to solve the problems are presented. Students are evaluated based on their ability to apply the prescribed methods to the given situations. However, this is not how reality usually functions.
Problem solving in the real world is mostly absent of these contextual elements. They must be defined by the problem solver. Mostly, our problems are not identified for us and our thinking is not constrained to any particular methods to drive to a solution. Therefore, sound problem solving requires the development of skills by which we learn to define and breakdown our own problems in highly diverse situations using a wide variety of possible methods.
Like any other skill, strong problem solving ability requires many, many hours of consistent practice and feedback. Therefore, my wife – a former 5th grade teacher – and I believe that it is vital to begin developing these skills in our children at a young age. We use moments from everyday life to reinforce the basic thought processes underlying Lean problem solving. Rather than punishing our children for their mistakes or bad behavior, we try to instead see them as opportunities for learning.
One of the core tenets of Lean thinking is the emphasis placed on respect for people, which teaches us to improve the system, rather than blame the individual. By incorporating these principles into our parenting, we not only improve everyday family life by continually refining our internal systems, but we also develop a critical life skill in our children. Thus, it is by incorporating our children into the problem solving process that we show them the ultimate sign of respect.
We use the A3 format with the kids simply because they like to draw. Knowing that they get to draw a picture of the problem that they were having and the solutions they come up with keeps them very engaged in the activity. Although they cannot complete the entire A3 by themselves, we ask them the same set of 5 questions each and every time to help establish a pattern of thinking: What happened? What should happen next time? Why did it happen? How do we keep it from happening again? How will we know if it works? We have discovered that, with a little consistency and some patience, using the A3 to solve problems with the children is a much more effective – not to mention fun – way to improve our family life than typical parental approaches. Just ask Anna!
What follows is an example of how we apply Lean thinking as a family. The attached A3 tells the story of how my two-year old daughter, Anna, and I solved the problem of spilling her water at the dinner table. I have a hunch there are quite a few parents out there that may be able to relate to this one.
The Current Condition (What happened?)
Problems arise when we can identify a difference between how things are and how things ought to be. Children often struggle to identify problems simply because they have not yet developed the understanding to truly comprehend how things should be. Therefore, we have started to apply Lean thinking with the children only when it is truly obvious that something went wrong. In this case, a large puddle of water on the floor at our favorite restaurant provided a crystal clear signal to Anna that there was a problem. This was reinforced to me when Anna was able to tell me (and even draw) that she spilled her water when I asked her the first question, “what happened tonight at dinner?”
The Target Condition (What should happen next time?)
When asked the next question, “what should happen next time?” Anna understood that she should try to not spill her water at dinner. The rewarding part for me as a parent was that she was not ashamed that she spilled the water. Because we were having fun drawing the pictures and talking about it, she saw the activity as constructive and not as something that she needed to feel bad about.
Cause Analysis (Why did it happen?)
To be frank, I expected that we would struggle working through cause analysis because of the complexities of the thinking that are required. But we actually didn’t. In fact, Anna was quite good at working through the 5-whys analysis with me. It didn’t dawn on me until later that she was likely able to follow the lines of thinking because the 5-whys mimics the way that children naturally think when they want to learn. I’d guess that most parents of young children can relate to being asked why something happens. And then why that happens. And then why that happens. Again and again, until the discussion inevitably ends with, “BECAUSE I SAID SO!”
With a bit of probing, Anna was able to tell me that the water fell on the floor because it was setting on the very edge of the table [because that happened to be where she set it after taking a drink] and because she hit it with her elbow. She hit it with her elbow because she was turning around in her seat. She was turning around because, in her own words, “the fire was pretty colors, daddy!”
Countermeasures (How do we keep it from happening again?)
The 5-whys discussion revealed two ways to attack the root causes of Anna’s spilled water: create the good habit of placing her drink in a better location or eliminate the bad habit of turning around in her seat. As we did in Leanable Moment #1, since we’re either relying on the creation of or the elimination of a habit, we’ll refer to the habit loop coined by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit.
The Habit Loop model states that habits are created when a cue triggers an action, which in turn brings about a reward or a consequence. It follows that getting Anna to place her cup in a better location after drinking requires the creation of a cue and a reward for doing so, neither of which exist in the current state.
Conversely, as anyone who has tried to give up smoking or stick to a diet will attest, breaking an established pattern of behavior is much more difficult than creating a new one. Unlearning a habit requires the substitution of a different action in response to the existing cue that produces the same reward. In other words, when Anna is triggered by a pretty fireplace (or anything else new or interesting that may catch her eye), a new behavior must be inserted in place of turning around in her chair which still yields the desired result (she learns something new about her world). Breaking a habit is difficult to begin with, but trying to eliminate one that is tied to a very important biological imperative – curiosity – may be next to impossible. Therefore, we chose to focus on the slightly more feasible countermeasure of creating the habit of proper cup placement.
We started by observing Anna at dinner for several nights. We saw that there was a clear cue, in this case the need to put the cup down, and so we focused our efforts on creating a reward or consequence around the act. On the first attempt, we set a rule with Anna that would provide her with positive or negative feedback: the cup must be placed above her plate to keep it out of the heavy elbow traffic area of the table. However, the main reason that this did not work was because the feedback (the reward and/or consequence) was not consistent. The enforcement of the rule required the watchful eye of my wife and I, and with two other children, it was difficult for us to be aware every time that Anna took a sip of water.
Our next attempt tried to provide even more clarity around drink placement in hopes that we could be more vigilant in monitoring the process. We tried using a napkin as a makeshift target that would designate where the cup was to be placed after drinking. We found that the behavior improved, but not to the point where a repeatable habit was created. My wife and I were still inconsistent with providing feedback – creating a system in any walk of life that relies on constant human policing is futile. On top of that, there simply was no real reward driving Anna’s behavior. When we did take notice, the chorus of “good girl Annie!” was simply not enough motivation for her to seek it out every time she took a drink.
On our final attempt, we focused on creating more of an immediate reward for Anna to driver her behavior. We stuck with the concept of a target, but switched it from a napkin to a coaster. We then let Anna decorate the coaster, and on top, we placed a picture of a fish. Why a fish? On one hand, Anna likes fish. On the other hand, Anna knows that fish live in the water and can’t be left outside of the water for too long. See where this is going? We told Anna that in order for her to take care of her fishy, she needed to return the water to the fish on the coaster when she was done with it. With the fish coaster, Anna finally has a reason and a clear reward for following the proper behavior, and with some consistent practice, the habit loop eventually formed for the placement of her drink.
Standardize (How do we know if it worked?)
The fish coaster is now a mainstay in my wife’s purse and we bring it with us whenever we go out to eat. As is represented in Anna’s drawing, she knew that the coaster was working if the water didn’t fall on the floor anymore. So far, it hasn’t. I won’t say that the problem is solved because some level of spillage is inevitable as long as toddlers are given cups full of liquid. However, solving this specific problem is tantamount to developing within our children the skills that they will need to solve their own problems, whatever life may throw at them.
1. Developing strong problem solving abilities within our children requires consistent practice and feedback outside of the school environment.
2. The five questions below provide a simple and practical method for establishing a pattern of Lean thinking that can be followed by even young children:
- What happened?
- What should happen next time?
- Why did it happen?
- How do we keep it from happening again?
- How do we know if it worked?Breaking existing habits is much more difficult than establishing new habits.
3. To alter a current habit, we must identify an alternate and desirable action that can be performed in response to a trigger which yields the reward that is being sought.
Be part of the Lean at Home movement! Use the comments section below to share your personal experiences, struggles and tips/tricks in teaching kids problem solving skills. Have you solved a problem in a unique or innovative way that you would like to contribute to Leanable Moments? Simply click here or use the Contact the KaiZone link at the top of the page and tell me about it!