Is Order Important?
Dsteipe waht rasreech form Carbgmdie Uinretvisy may laed you to bleevie . . . we learn at a very young age that order is important. First we crawl, then we walk, then we run. Ready, Set . . . wait for it . . . Go! I before e (except after c, but that’s neither here nor there). In life, when we do things in the wrong order, the results can be downright disastrous – at least if you are an unsuspecting trombone player.
By definition (literally), processes are governed by the rules of order:
In the Lean world, improvement is a process, which means that the order of steps when solving a problem is critical, right? Isn’t that why we follow Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA)? Lean thinking requires that we first identify the problem or opportunity. Next, we understand the root cause. Only then do we even begin to think about solutions. In fact, according to Mark Graban’s Lean Blog, bucking of the established order represents the two biggest errors we make when solving problems.
If all of this seems obvious to you, I’m going to warn you in advance. The following statement contains controversial advice and may not be suitable for all Lean practitioners: When solving problems, I deliberately choose not follow the established order. In fact, I start by jumping right to solutions. And you should, too!
What is the Value that Lean Thinking Adds?
As I’ve previously established, Lean thinking is a cognitively demanding effort that consumes a large amount of our available budget of energy. Furthermore, it takes a significant investment of time to thoroughly break down a problem and to drill down to root cause, instead of jumping into action. Despite the substantial upfront outlay of time and energy required, we willingly pay the cost because we believe it will be returned in the form of more effective and more efficient problem solving.
Each and every PDCA cycle presents the opportunity to learn on two different levels. When we attempt to solve a problem, we can learn both about the problem itself, and also about the methods we use. For the vast majority of problems, we dedicate most of our effort to the former and very little time to consider the latter. In time and with plenty of practice, Lean thinking becomes second nature to us. Eventually, we cease to ever question the process. We take it at face value and it simply becomes what we do and how we think. The value-add is a given. But, is it truly? How do you know? What proof do you have? If we never turn an inquisitive eye towards the process of Lean thinking, can we really be certain that the ends justify the means?
The best way I see to truly understand the value-add of the Lean problem solving process is to treat each problem as scientific evaluation of the methodology itself. Consequently, by stating the proposed solutions prior to the application of Lean thinking, we create a control for the experiment that allows us to test whether or not the rigors of the PDCA cycle contribute significantly to the outcomes of our problem solving efforts. Therefore, I start by jumping to solutions precisely to show the folly of jumping to solutions. I start in the Act phase, to demonstrate that we should first Plan, Do and Check. I break the established order to prove that problem solving is a process of thinking in which the order contributes greatly to the outcomes.
So, What Are the Outcomes?
For the last five years, I’ve started nearly every single project, workshop and kaizen event with the same question:
If we were to take action based only upon what we know right now, what would we do?
I note the response and never speak of it again until after the PDCA cycle has yielded the final action plan. After the application of Lean thinking, we reflect on the actions that were proposed at the beginning of the initiative; in that moment, the effects of Lean thinking are placed in to sharp relief, becoming apparent to all. In the last 5 years, I’ve asked teams and individuals to jump to solutions on over 50 occasions. Lean thinking has resulted in significant changes to the originally proposed course of action in more than 75% of opportunities.
To put that into context, consider that the pre-PDCA actions were not contributed by individuals with little knowledge about the problem or process. These were deliberately constructed teams of individuals, selected specifically because of their subject matter and process expertise. These were people with years of collective experience, most of whom worked directly with the processes of interest on a daily basis. Despite the massive breadth and depth of knowledge within the teams involved, Lean thinking drove significantly different outcomes in more than 75% of problems investigated!
What Can We Learn from the Other 25%?
It should not come as a surprise that, for a finite number of instances, the actions required to counter a problem were well understood prior to the use of the PDCA methodology. When taken together, these instances share a critical few commonalities which provide great insight into how they were able to be well-understood without the deliberate application of Lean thinking.
- The problems were observable to the human eye.
- There was little distance in time or space between the observation of the problem (symptom detection) and the cause of the problem.
- The environment in which the problems occurred was repeatable and predictable.
Collectively, these three characteristics do not cast doubt on the value that Lean thinking provides, but rather the management of the organization. Think of it this way: if a problem is readily observable, with a cause that provides timely feedback all within a highly repeatable and predictable environment, why hasn’t it already been solved? In these cases, Lean thinking is still the correct answer, but to a very different and much more fundamental question for the organization.
Why Should You Jump to Solutions?
Five years of research has proven to me, unequivocally, that the process of Lean thinking adds value. Many would view my study as a failure; five years of effort to prove something that was already widely accepted as fact seems like a less-than-successful outcome. However, the question for me was not one of yes (the thinking adds value) vs. no (the thinking does not add value), but to what extent.
Changing the way people think is difficult and stressful work, but it is necessary for Lean thinking to truly transform an organization. When I am facing resistance from the targets of a change, or when I publicly challenge the mandates of a well-respected leader, or when I’m perceived as a roadblock to a team that just wants to take action, I need to believe in the strength of my convictions beyond a shadow of a doubt. That is why I jump to solutions. Because I believe fully in the power and in the value of Lean thinking. And you should, too.