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Lean and the 4 types of Problems

Every organisation has problems, it doesn't matter how big or how small the organisation, there are always problems. They come in all shapes and sizes from little niggles like there's no A3 paper for the printer again to we have to do a full recall of the product all the way to the more serious we may have to shut the company down. There is a myriad of problems every day that need to be tackled by everyone at every level.When you talk about lean problem solving is clearly a big part of it, getting to the root cause and making sure it never happens again is touted as the easy to go but in reality, that's not quite true.  

Not All Problems are Equal 

The first thing that should be clearly obvious, especially from the fairly extreme examples I listed before, is that not all problems are equal, some are clearly more important than others. I'd suggest that you would spend a bunch more time on stopping your company going bust than you would in figuring out why there is no A3 paper (although having no A3 paper clearly makes doing A3 problem solving a little harder since it normally darn on A3 paper!). Am I going to stop a whole bunch of people working and do a full root cause because we have no A3 paper? What about why we have to recall a Product? The answer is clearly…. It depends! You have to apply the right level of problem solving to each case and in each case it's possible that you may have to come back and look it again, even if you believe you found the root cause. That said there are really only 4 types of problem that exist when you step back and have a bit of a think about it:

  • Type 1 – Trouble shooting
  • Type 2 – Gap from the expected Standard
  • Type 3 – A new target condition i.e. you want to raise the bar, set a new level of performance
  • Type 4 – Open Ended – think of these as blue-sky innovation type problems where you want to come up with a new idea for processes, systems, or products and of course value for the customer.
Think about it like this:

Type 1 - Trouble Shooting 

Every company has type 1 problems, unfortunately most seem to live in them. These are the troubleshooting, fire fighting type problems that exist everywhere. Now that isn't to try and paint them in a bad light, certainly if this is all you ever have then there are some underlying systemic problems but there is nothing wrong with this type of problem or the fixes that go with it. Here's a typical example, you are in an assembly line building printed circuit boards, the machine places over 30,000 parts per hour. The alarm on the machine goes off and you find one of the placement nozzles for picking the part from the feed and putting into the circuit board is broken. You could stop the line, gather a team and fully root cause why this happened but I can assure you that you wouldn't be popular and the reality is you are just going to pop in a new nozzle and hit start again. Total downtime probably 2-4 minutes at most. That's it, that's perfectly acceptable, record the issue and move on. If it becomes a frequent and on-going thing then it becomes something you need to look further into but not right off the bat you may kick into a 4C routine (Concern, Cause, Counter Measure & Check results). This type of immediate resolution is acceptable and should be encouraged, if you tried to root cause every issue you would never put anything out the door! It also helps to build that trouble shooting muscle that you will use time and again here and in other problems.

Type 2 - Gap from Standard 

These are a little more serious, these types of problems are typically repeating problems that are having a bigger more consistent impact on your business than you would like. You are able to measure this impact as a gap between the performance you are getting and the standard you expect, the measurement doesn't have to be months in the making, it could just be hours! The fact is you are now seeing a clear repeating trend which also means that you have some data you can work with, there is going to be little guessing on what the issue is because you can properly root cause the issue and eliminate it. This is where you would want to step in and carry out a bit of an exercise, so for example lets say that our machine placing parts is now only placing about 20,000 parts per hour what do you do? Well again it depends! You could carry out a basic 5 why – where you ask why 5 times to figure things out, you may go for a 5W&H where it's Who was involved, What happened, When did it happen, Where did it Happen, Why did it happen (you may even sneak in a 5 why here) and finally how did it happen. You may decide a full deeper root cause is required and so it's time for an A3 or fishbone or what ever method you decide. The fact is you are now delving into this problem and figuring out why it's happened and how to stop it. In this case it may be that the grease used on the rotating turret spindle of the placement head was more treacle than grease as it hadn't been changed in a long time, because the maintenance routine wasn't correct because it wasn't reviewed etc (yes this is a real example I had happen). So, you get the idea, we changed the instructions on the maintenance requirements and of course changed all the grease and then monitored it over time for speed.

Type 3 - A New Target Condition 

There are a range of triggers for needing a new target condition, it may be that you have been meeting, or even slightly exceeding your current target for a while and you want to just raise the bar, it may be that the competition has taken a leap on you and you need to catch up. Irrespective of the issue the thinking you need to apply here is different from the thinking you apply to either of the 1st two types of problem. Here you going to take some time with a team to really understand the gap that you have created, and that's what you are doing you are basically artificially creating a gap between the current standard and the new, required standard, this is 100% pure continuous improvement. Here you are going to really kick into your Kaizen events, you may well use the A3 problem solving tools, you will be very clear about defining what the new ideal state will look like to ensure that your team have a north star or direction to follow. They will take the time to really understand the current condition, checking trend charts, out put data, problems that have come up and they will synthesise experiments to try out to see if that can lift performance to the new level. It is going to be iterative not a big bang approach. My typical example here is a change over or SMED, where you always want to minimise the downtime here you are going to do a series of steps to improve things a bit at a time until you reach the new target. Then you'll stabilise it and monitor it to ensure it's in control before thinking about going again (if you need to!)

Type 4 - Innovation 

The final type of problem are great ones to have, this again is pure continuous improvement. They are the big blue-sky ones, the big picture innovation type problems where you need to come up with something completely new, possibly even for a problem that doesn't exist yet! For example while working in electronics the team I was in (affectionately called the chief geeks) was tasked with coming up with a process called bumpless flipchip, which basically takes a bare bit of silicon that would normally be encased in a microchip and putting that directly on the board. Flipchip wasn't new, but they did come with solder balls already attached, what we wanted to do was take a bare die and screen print the balls before placing the very fragile bit of silicon and then cook it at a few hundred degrees within cracking it. We had no idea if it could be done, the benefits of it are huge in terms of cost reduction, process improvement and smaller products! We did countless trials on the type of solder paste, size of the solder balls, the placement forces, angles and so on then there was a whole post processing part! Each step we had a clear goal, we had a list of experiments to meet that new target and of course a time frame and a budget. There was lots of brain storming, there lots of reviews of things that were unsuccessful so we could learn from them and eventually we achieved the goal.


Be fore you go out and try to solve every problem take a second and think about what type of problem you are trying to solve, one you know then you know what tool or approach you can pick up to get the desired result. Are you in trouble shooting mode or improvement mode? Are you looking for a quick solution or is there a trend that you need to take account of? Remembering all problems aren't equal is important, spending hours solving a problem that really doesn't need to be solved is just waste, in lean, we don't like waste so be mindful of where you apply your talents.

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