There’s a Hole in Our Boat, Captain – Why Tuning into Small Problems May Save Your Business

Subikash Roy

Look out for clues to understand what you can't see

Do you run Kaizen events to address workplace problems? If you’re only focusing on what you can see, you might not be getting at the real root causes. Contributor Subikash Roy, looks at the importance of tuning into small, subtle and sometimes almost imperceptible signs to understand what is really going wrong with our organizations.

Imagine you have a boat that has a small hole on the side of it. The hole sits above the water level and can be easily repaired. But perhaps because it is minor and above the water level you decide not to worry about it – it’s only a little hole and it’s not causing you any immediate problems. It seems wasteful and unnecessary to repair it. However, when the conditions either on or around your boat change – e.g. you load the boat with extra weight or a storm with high waves starts up – all of a sudden that little hole that seemed so innocent can become a major point of failure.

If you’re not careful your entire ship could sink.

Now clearly, no sane captain would tolerate any holes anywhere on a boat that he was running. But, I use this analogy to illustrate a point - I believe this is how many businesses today operate. They ignore a small problem because it doesn’t seem worth the energy to repair it. The trouble is that a small problem can eventually lead to a major problem that has the ability to destroy your business.

And if you put this in the context of the current business climate, you can see why there’s the risk of a lot more sinking ships these days. In the wake of continued economic uncertainty many businesses today are struggling for survival. My argument is that by focusing only on the major problems, companies are in effect bailing as the boat sinks rather than plugging the hole.

So we have to tune ourselves into those small problems – the holes – and the risks that they present to our business. More importantly, we have to tune into the signs that a hole may be about to occur – in the boat example above this could be looking for signs of stress on the hull - so that we can address the conditions that lead to points of failure.

The need to understand what’s really happening

This brings us to two approaches to understanding and improving our workplaces. The first approach I would call the Kaizen (continuous improvement) approach, which looks at events within our current business boundaries and reacts to them. The Kaizen approach is used for solving the day to day problems at the shop floor level for normal day to day problems of the shop floor like, machine breakdowns, defects and any reactive type of problem solving involving quantitative data. This approach can and should be done by direct shop floor personnel.

The second method is what I would call the "Breakthrough" approach. In this approach we look beyond our current business boundaries and understand what’s really at work – the symptoms and phenomena (for more on phenomena see my previous article) – and then decide where we want to go. In other words, we find out the gaps in knowledge, skills and behaviours which need to be synchronized for our growth.

When senior managers do Gemba (workplace) visits it's important to understand that the purpose of these visits is really to understand whether our organization is ready for future growth. Many companies are failing because management don’t recognize the gap between a dream (where you want the company to go) and its reality (where it is now based in terms of the skills, knowledge and behavior of the organization).

But first, I want to elaborate on the Japanese San-Gen-Shugi methodology which underlies the breakthrough approach.

Japanese San-Gen-Shugi Approach to Problem Solving

San means three, Gen means what you actually see in front of you and Shugi means principles. San-Gen-Shugi has three elements as shown below in Figure-1:

Figure-1: San-Gen Principles

The San-Gen principle is explained in Figure-2 below. The key point is that when you sense a problem or symptom of change you have to get to the source; see the actual object and then find relationships to arrive at probable root causes.

This is the a standard principle whether you are employing a Kaizen approach or a Breakthrough approach. However, how it is applied – the types of questions you ask and relationships you explore – likely vary with the approach.

Figure-2: San-Gen Shugi Approach

Gemba Observation Techniques

So how do we determine what is happening in the Gemba? (Gemba is a Japanese term used in Lean theory; it is any place where work happens. It may be a factory, an office, a restaurant or a football field.)

In my opinion, a Gemba can be considered a bit like a human being because it is a group of humans who are adding value through assets and activities. Therefore, human issues are the most important ones for management to address - and these can be more difficult to identify.

When we go to the Gemba we can’t just look at what we can see: we need to identify those subtle signs - phenomena and invisible symptoms - that indicate the real root causes of events that take place, and to act accordingly. We need to use our five senses to trigger what I call the sixth sense.

Bear with me – I’ll be looking shortly at a practical example to make this more clear.

But first, consider your feeling; is it a strange feeling? Here are some simple techniques which could be normally followed:

  1. Identify the object that we want to observe.
  2. Use the five senses of See, Hear, Smell, Taste and Touch to observe the object
  3. Measure by means of metric or language data
  4. Look beyond the object to its periphery. The periphery gives us many clues which can be called as shadows and symbols. We must therefore look at shadows and symbols.
  5. Identify shadows – these are things that are normally not directly connected with the problem and may not be easily visible. If you have been to a jewellery shop with your wife or girlfriend to buy her an earring on Valentine’s day, have you observed the salesman any time? An astute sales man in a jewellery shop would observe her eyes when he or she is selecting ornaments. When the iris enlarges on seeing an earring, the salesman would go for the kill and explain to her that this is the only earring that really suits her. This is an example of shadow observation of behaviour. In our workplaces, shadows can be observed in a number of different places that we may not think of as directly related to the problem at hand. Look at all the tools available to you - annual and financial reports, watching employees behaviour, and inspecting the physical work environment.
  6. Look for symbols – these are events, behaviours or situations that may not be directly connected to the event but may be a hidden catalyst for the potential problems. For example, a long dark corridor between closed offices may be a symbol of bureaucracy and closed culture or when you enter a factory for the first time, and the security politely greets you but does not ask for your credentials may mean that this organization does not value security or the security people are not trained for their job.

The Case of the Leaky Machine

Let’s take the example of a leaking machine. This is a simple example to explain the concepts of breakthrough thinking.

What does a leaky machine actually signify?

The object here is the grinding machine. When we look at the grinding machine, we see that there is leak. But what else can you see? There is a tray under the machine which normally goes unnoticed.

If I were approaching the Gemba in Breakthrough mode, I would ask "Why is there a tray under the machine?" That may give us a clue about something else that’s going on.

We can then explore the periphery further and find that all machines are placed on steel trays irrespective of whether they are leaking or not. I ask myself "I have authorized people to put the tray under every machine - "what does that mean?"

One possible answer is that it could symbolize management's acceptance of leaky machines. I may not intend this, but by having trays placed under all the machines employees may interpret this as a sign that it is acceptable to have leaks and have adjusted their behaviour accordingly. The tray is a symbol of something else - a mindset or behaviour - that we are unable to see directly so we need to perceive it through observation of workplace symbols.

The following chart describes the difference between approaching the Gemba in Kaizen versus breakthrough mode using the leaky machine example.

Figure-3: Two Ways of Approaching the Gemba

Measurement by Kaizen approach is more simple and is based on measurable metrics; following which we take countermeasures.

So how do we measure by the breakthrough approach? In breakthrough approach, we measure by less tangible data to interpret meaning from symbols and shadows.

Continuing with our example of the leaking grinding machine, has the problem been solved? The answer is "Yes" and "No". Yes, the supervisor has solved the problem at his level. He has done his job. But at my level, is the problem resolved? I would say "No". Why? Because the problem is still there. The supervisor has only introduced a detection system which will add to cost. The supervisor and operators still have the old mindset of ignoring the leakage and continuing production. So the oil will leak and operator will report only when they see oil in the tray again.

When we talk to the operators, to explore deeper into our hypothesis, we find a totally different reason for the existence of the tray. The why-why-therefore analysis in Figure-4 explains clearly the real reasons. This is a management problem. Management has created the environment to accept leakage in the organization. It may be oil leakage or any other leakage.

Figure-4: Why-Why-Therefore Analysis created after talking to shopfloor personnel

What do we learn from this example? We see many things happening at the Gemba; for example, people grouping and talking, machines idle, or even people not following standards. We must create and test our hypothesis to see the bigger picture in terms of invisible symptoms and phenomena. Top management must recognize the current phenomena and how it will affect our future business and survival. We must look beyond simple events and consider why the events happened in the first place. Is the current Knowledge, Skills and Behaviour synchronized with my growth? Are the standards and processes provided by the management convenient and reasonable?

Try to do it yourself sometime - and you might be surprised by the answers!