Applying LEAN Thinking to Everyday Problems - Part 2: Simple Problem Solving

In my first blog of this series I was explaining the eight types of waste. This blog is about explaining a really useful LEAN tool called ‘SPS’ (Simple Problem Solving). The tool is used for problems of low / medium complexity that won’t take longer than a few hours / a day to resolve.

All of us ‘solve’ problems every day but we don’t always take the time to fix the true root cause of our specific problem (therefore it will reoccur).  Here is an (I admit quite embarrassing) example of me jumping to solutions. Some years ago I wanted to cut our lawn for the first time after the winter break. I carried our lawn mower up from the cellar into the garden, but – after plugging it in using the extension lead – the lawn mower just wouldn’t start. I was frustrated and jumped straight to the conclusion that the lawn mower had ‘died’ over the cold winter months. As I was keen to finish the job, I took the machine straight to the dump and bought a new one… only… the new one didn’t work either! It turned out that the actual fault was with the extension lead rather than the lawn mower itself. This wouldn’t have happened had I followed the steps of simple problem solving:

Step 1 – Define the problem

  1. What should be happening?
  2. What is happening?

 The difference between the two is ‘the gap’ = ‘the problem’

  1. Identify the point of cause (what, who, when, where, how)
  2. What is the impact?

Once you have answered all of the above, you will be able to make a problem statement. This sounds easier than it is! Have a go using the above example. The risk is that if you are not defining (containing) your problem properly, you won’t be able to solve it.

Step 2 – Do we know the cause?

1. Explore the direct cause (using tools like Fishbone, Pareto, Process maps to identify potential direct causes and then prioritising or –  for simple issues – asking the first why).

E.g. ‘Why does the lawn mower not work?’:  It could be a fault with the machine itself (various part options), it could be a fault with the extension cable, with the socket, even with the electricity supply!

2. Get to the root cause. Use the ‘five whys’ for each of the main potential causes, for example:

  • ‘Why does the extension lead not work?’ It is damaged.
  • ‘Why is it damaged?’ It wasn’t stored properly.
  • ‘Why wasn’t it stored properly?’ It was not rolled up.
  • ‘Why was it not rolled up?’ I wasn’t aware I had to roll it up.

Root cause: lack of standards!

Roots causes are:

  1. a lack of standards / inadequate standards,
  2. a lack of adherence to a standard,
  3. a lack of / inadequate system or process.

In the business world quite often we jump to the conclusion that we have a certain problem because we don’t have the right system. In the majority of cases however it’s the standard or process that needs sorting out.

Step 3 – Have we confirmed cause and effect?

Remove or block the cause – this would have been quite easy in my case – just plug the lawn mower in directly into the socket without the extension cable or swap extension cables. For more complex problems, you would conduct experiments and identify countermeasures.

Step 4 – Confirm countermeasures

Again, in this case by replacing the extension lead instead of the lawn mower my problem would have been solved a lot quicker and cheaper. For more complex problems: are the results of your experiments good results? If so, adjust / create standard. If not, try a new experiment. Once you are happy with the results, put checks in please. Share the learning.

So next time, before you jump to conclusions, try the above – the more you apply this tool, the more efficient you will become in problem solving!