Tame variability

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Business Operations Facilities Maintenance MRO Operations Production Manufacturing Lean lean manufacturing maintenance manufacturing

How to subdue it with formal problem solving.

Gain traction with problem-solving tools. PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

Gain traction with problem-solving tools. PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

There are lots of methodologies to help identify and eliminate waste, but there’s another monster lurking within our processes … variability. For this we need formal problem solving tools. Although Six Sigma is the most encompassing, it requires a lot of training before folks are comfortable with all of its statistical tools.

There are a couple of problem types.

Common cause is a problem requiring fundamental improvement to correct (such as reducing variation). It’s defined by the observation that “it has always been that way.” These types of problems are based on engineering or continuous improvement. They’re not characterized by an abrupt change from one state (acceptable) to a new state (unacceptable).

Special cause problems ask the question: What changed? It follows the realization that what was once acceptable has become unacceptable. The goal is a quick return to the previous state and prevent further loss as a result of the diminished state of operation.


Problem solving methodology won’t work if it’s considered just another activity. It must focus on quality and disturbances to flow.

Linkage to execution is created through daily report-out meetings, morning market and daily walks through plant. The goal is to resolve daily issues within the shift.

Problems generally fall into three categories:

1. Technical – product/process is not capable; there’s an excessive scrap level; process is not stable; set-up is difficult/inconsistent; customer is dissatisfied.
2. Operational – throughput, downtime, maintenance, reliability.
3. Organizational – strategic, human resources, administrative inefficiencies.
Certain tools and skills are more effective than others at solving specific types of problems. Your current state of problem solving likely relies on expert opinion and best guess. It’s an iterative approach that involves trying alternatives until the correct solution is found and works if enough knowledge and experience is available. However, it doesn’t actively promote problem prevention. It deals with immediate issues and moves on; and it doesn’t consider side effects of changes that create new problems.

The following are future state conditions:

• Apply a common approach to identifying, defining and solving problems at all levels of the organization and speak a common language.
• Become stable and predictable.
• Reduce the time lag between problem identification and resolution.
• Treat problems, not symptoms to ensure the root cause is eliminated.
• Ensure controls are implemented to sustain gains.
• Identify and address potential side effects of changes prior to implementation.
• Be shop floor and operations friendly.

To the top floor

It’s important to raise skills at all levels of organization and engage more resources.

It’s not enough to say “Go and solve your own problem.” Without the tools and self-confidence to use them, people are reluctant to engage. This leads to problem avoidance and “bubbling up” of issues to more senior levels for resolution, the opposite of empowerment.

Raise skill levels in decision making. A common framework is required to promote thorough analysis that results in the best choices, foreseen side effects and reduced implementation issues. The benefits include: more effective efforts; more actively engaged employees; reduced time lag between identification and solution; and problem solving becomes a way of doing business rather than a special project.

Adoption must be driven by management. Without their involvement, leadership by example and encouragement, newly acquired skills will fade away.

Here’s a guide for launching a formal problem solving infrastructure.

• Select a methodology from available alternatives.
• Select champions to lead deployment within each plant.
• Determine if training should be internal or by OEMs.
• Train senior, technical and supervisory personnel, cell leaders and key hourly staff in techniques and tools. Follow up with practice.
• Continue to select projects and lead problem-solving activities by example.
• Launch the “morning market” concept.
• Align the performance measurement system to recognize the importance of problem resolution activities.

As you stabilize your variability through effective problem solving, lean methodologies will gain additional traction.

Richard Kunst is president and CEO of Cambridge, Ont.-based Kunst Solutions Corp., which helps companies become more agile and implement lean solutions.

This article appears in the May/June 2016 issue of PLANT.


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