Correcting mistakes is not enough: developing insight is what matters!


The Lean focus on “problem solving” can easily be misunderstood as eliminating all problems from the process. From a mechanistic perspective, the “Lean as operational excellence” dream is that if we take all the problems out of the process, as pulling pins from a doll, then the process will be perfect and without variation.

This pure and utter nonsense. Most processes work okay, they’re just never perfect. And will never be. Problems are the result of friction between the process and its changeable, movable and unpredictable environment. Take out one problem today, you’ll get a new, different one tomorrow.

Problem solving is a device to teach people how to solve the problems they encounter, not how to eliminate them. This is why:

  • We don’t want to see backlogs of problems: who cares, if it happened a week ago, it’s already gone
  • We do want to see how people formulate the problem, the cause, the countermeasure and the check: the challenge is better reasoning on today’s conditions

Problem solving does help in avoiding mistakes as people understand better the underlying insights drivers of the process, but the real benefit is when, through problem solving, people:

  • Discover their own misconception about the situation that led to the problem and
  • Come up with fresh insights about how to do things better

The magic moment is when the story they tell themselves about how the process works changes into a new story with a stronger fit-to-fact and opens up opportunities that were previously unseen, doors where people thought was an immutable barrier.

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Examining problem solving through kaizen boards, A3s, etc. is the point of writing them down. Posted on the wall or shared hand to hand, problems detailed in a standard format help us to see how well the problem was expressed, how careful the search for root cause was conducted, how insightful the countermeasure found be and how impactful it turns out to be.

Avoiding mistakes is important, clearly, but to do so you’ve got to develop intuition and insight.

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