We talk about problem solving and continuous improvement in the Lean methodology. How much time should we worry about distinguishing between the problems we CAN solve, the problems we SHOULD solve, and the problems we MUST solve? I bet many of you are trying to figure that out in your organizations.
I was in my hometown of Livonia, Michigan over the weekend visiting friends and family. Don’t ask about the football game I was so excited about. Apparently it’s a jinx for a blogger to blog about their team. No, I’m not understanding cause and effect. My team just got whupped.
Monday morning, I met with a woman, Donna, who has a dual role with the Livonia Public Schools and the City of Livonia, focused on Lean and process improvement in operations and services.
Jeff Fuchs is a Lean consultant who is organizing the Mid-Atlantic Lean Conference that I’m attending in November. He has previously done some pro-bono work with the school district. While I’ve just visited twice as an interested alum, Jeff has actually done heavier lifting – Lean training and a couple of Kaizen Events. He’s also a Livonia native, if you hadn’t guessed.
Donna and I chatted about Lean over coffee at a local café. When we ordered coffee from the server, Donna asked for cream – or maybe milk – I forget, because it doesn’t matter to me as a drinker of black coffee.
The server, in a friendly and efficient way, brought a pot of coffee to the table, with two mugs, and a little metal pitcher of creamer (or milk). She poured initial cups of coffee. Then, I couldn’t help but notice that the server also, in a friendly and efficient way (mostly efficient, I guess) dropped a spoon into my coffee. I shouldn’t say “dropped,” because her action was very intentional.
Was it really efficient, though? What happens if you do the wrong thing well? That might be called the “waste of overprocessing.”
As I took the spoon out of my mug, placing it on the table, I chuckled and said to Donna, “Ah, I can’t help but notice waste.” She laughed, in that begrudging recognition that most of us working with Lean notice these little details.
Now, I wasn’t upset. We were chuckling about it, laughing at ourselves (I think… she might have been laughing at me). We quickly moved on to solving the bigger problems of the world.
But, I couldn’t help thinking and talking more about the spoon in my coffee (because Lean thinkers maybe obsess over small details, or maybe it’s the industrial engineer in me).
I know the server was trying to be helpful by taking care of me, the customer. But, in the realm of “customer focus,” you can’t assume all customers are the same or that the average customer represents everybody.
Different customers have different needs. “Every patient is unique!” is a phrase said many in healthcare, but Lean is still helpful. Lean never assumed every customer is the same… Lean factories are MORE flexible and can produce greater variety. Students are complex, but yet Lean helps a school district improve the new student enrollment process or the substitute teacher call in process (two projects that LPS has tackled).
Again, I wasn’t annoyed by this, but what’s the waste involved in just dropping a spoon into a customer’s mug?
1. Extra motion for the server (it’s minor, and arguably inconsequential, but it’s there)
2. More work for the customer (taking the spoon out)
3. More clean up work once we leave (I didn’t lick or wipe the spoon before setting it on the table to the side, so it probably dripped some coffee, but hopefully they’d wipe it just the same without a few drops of coffee)
4. One more spoon to be washed, dried, and put away (consuming a tiny amount of time, energy, water, and soap… which made me think of hospitals washing and sterilizing surgical instruments in a pack that are always unused)
5. Needing a (slightly) bigger inventory of spoons to be used if more are in circulation
Now, it’s difficult or awkward for a customer to point out a problem in a process, especially one that’s so minor. I wasn’t about to complain. “You unnecessarily put a spoon in my coffee and I am offended by the waste.” No, that’s a silly thing to say. I’m not the crabby type of customer who would snap and exclaim, “Who said to put a spoon in my damn coffee!” That customer might exist. I’m sorry for any servers who are called upon to serve them.
Other times, I’ve thought about the coffee creamers that are brought to me at a diner or hotel restaurant if I’m eating breakfast alone. More often than not, when I order coffee, the server assumes I want milk without asking. Sometimes, they bring a few individually-packaged mini creamers or a bowl full of them. They sit unused and, I presume, are reused for future customers (whether they need them or not). Or, they bring a chilled pitcher of milk… now that really seems like a waste of time and dairy product.
Does any of this matter? Good question!
When we think about the practice of Kaizen in the workplace, some of our improvement might be (should be) driven by reactions to customer complaints. If the coffee was cold, there would be an opportunity to improve a process and improve customer satisfaction.
When we teach Kaizen, the focus is on:
- No problem is too small to solve
- Focus on solving problems that bother you or the customer
In this case, the spoon in the coffee bothered nobody. It’s a small problem and maybe something that could be solved. The server could take a second to ask which customers are using creamer or sweetener. “Do you need a spoon?” doesn’t take long to ask if she decided to do that instead of just dropping the spoon in.
But, the server doesn’t see what she’s doing as a problem. It’s a tiny problem. Nobody is complaining (the customer or the boss).
You can’t solve problems you don’t see. Lean and Kaizen help us get better at seeing problems and fixing them.
Does a problem like that NEED solving? No, but I think problems like that are important in the early stages of a creating a culture of continuous improvement. After asking people to solve problems that bug them or the customers, you might teach them about the “types of waste” in the broader Lean approach.
As staff start solving small problems (and the things that bug them), they get better at problem solving. They become more attuned to waste and other problems. They can be proactive and solve problems that a future customer MIGHT complain about. They can improve service and reduce costs at the same time. The practice of Kaizen, for an individual or a team, has to start somewhere. Small is usually the place to start.
What we see happening in a Kaizen culture is the CUMULATIVE effect of lots of small improvements. Dropping the spoon in my coffee or not is not the life-or-death, profit-or-loss, make-or-break moment for a café. But, that small improvement plus 499 other small improvements over time would make a huge difference.
Thanks to Donna for indulging me in my spoon talk and everything else we chatted about.
A restaurant (or a hospital or a school district) can ALSO solve the big strategic problems that really matter. There’s a time and a place for Kaizen events and A3s. There’s a time and a place for aligning those things to goal and metrics, through strategy deployment. Process improvement experts or consultants or “belts” can help with some of those problems.
However, ThedaCare is an example of a health system that expects 80% of their organization’s improvement to come from staff-driven ideas. Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder have done research to show that this is true across a broad range of organizations (see their latest book The Idea-Driven Organization).
Big projects matter. Ambitious process redesign efforts matter.
But, I think we also have to think about developing the ability of every individual to identify and fix those “spoon in the mug” problems too. What are your “spoon in the mug” problems in your workplace? If you can’t think of any, go look for one today and maybe ask others to do the same…
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