Heard on the Gemba: We are great Problem Solvers, But…….

Recently heard on the gemba:

“We are great problem solvers, but the same problems keep coming back.”


When the countermeasures are off target, the problems reoccur. If problems reoccur for the same root cause, we have not in fact solved the problem. We have only temporarily contained it. Even if the same problem reoccurs due to a different root cause, it is possible that problem solving was done without a thorough enough root cause analysis step. Problem solving has not successfully happened until we can verify that the root causes have been identified and that the countermeasures applied to them are effective.

Taiichi Ohno wrote in Toyota Production System:

When a problem occurs, if the root cause analysis is insufficient, the focus of countermeasures can be off. That is why we ask ‘why?’ five times. This is the foundation of the scientific attitude of the Toyota system.
In the Toyota way of working called TBP (Toyota Business Practice) there are 8 steps. These are synonymous with practical problem solving and are mapped against the PDCA cycle.

1. Clarify the problem
by providing background detail, context, history and going to see. Write a concise and simple problem statement. Gain consensus on the problem statement.

2. Break down the problem
by deconstructing complex problems into their component issues or themes, narrowing the scope or identifying any out-of-bounds or unaddressable areas.

3. Set a target
that will be achieved based on the above selection of the clear and broken down problem statement.

4. Analyze the root causes
by going to see, employing a variety of means such as Pareto analysis, Ishikawa diagrams and 5 why analysis, to arrive at actionable areas.

5. Develop countermeasures
to these root cause areas, with the emphasis on multiple countermeasures that can be deployed as experiments, rather than looking for one total solution.

6. See countermeasures through
to their successful or unsuccessful result, trying again and again without giving up until the target is reached.

7. Evaluate both results and process
in order to learn whether the plan was followed or whether short cuts were taken, whether results were achieved by luck or random variation or actual successful countermeasures, and systematically examine failed experiments or incorrect assumptions exposed while seeing countermeasures through.

8. Standardize successful practices
and learn from failures, share and set sights on the next targets by returning to step 1, the beginning of the PCDA cycle.

Granted, this process takes a lot longer than quickly defining the problem and jumping to a solution. Sometimes that is necessary in order to temporarily contain a problem. But it is not true problem solving, as in the application of root cause countermeasures. When the root causes are found and countermeasures are dutifully applied, the problems remain “solved” or at least non-recurring for the same root cause.

The popular A3 thinking or A3 problem solving is nothing more than the process of developing and documenting this collaboratively, one one page of paper, often A3-sized. Becoming great at problem solving is not a question of speed, brilliance or heroic effort, it is a dedication to the proven PDCA process and practice, practice, practice…

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