Do we have a problem?

I taught a lot of problem solving in my previous position. Unfortunately I didn’t teach A3 (I love A3). I taught a custom system for the organization I work in. It is a great system that has been specifically catered to fit the organisation’s business model and the most common types of problems it faces. Through teaching this system I gained a lot of insights into how people view structured problem solving with root cause analysis for the first time and what some of the key challenges they face are. I thought I would share some of these with you.

Most People are scared that not following things strictly will mean they mess up and that messing up is a bad thing. When people came into my training course I ccould see the anxiety on their faces. They probably did the pre-reading I sent them but it most likely did more to confuse them than help them. They take our system and they treat it as a process that must be followed to the letter, with every step executed 100% or they will fail. My message to them now, you will probably fail and that’s ok. You are trying to improve and that takes time and understanding. The system is not a process. You can go back, revise, update and change anything you want any time as long as it is based on facts.

A lot of people do not understand that they are fire fighting. So when they get into the training course, they are expecting to be shown how to fight fires better. Or, worse, expecting you to come with some “unreal guff” that is not practical to implement as it takes more time than what they do today. Telling them they are fire fighting will not help. They know that but they can’t help it, and most likely it’s what their boss/peers expect them to do. To approach this situation I like to start big. Take a big problem they have, encourage them to apply the system to that. They will usually see the most value in that approach and can justify it.

More data will help me understand the problem better. No. Just no. This has to be one of the most common issues I encounter in problem solving. In all my years experience I do not think I have seen a case where there was insufficient data available. Usually the opposite. So much data that you cannot see the problem for the amazon rain forest worth of sheets of paper on the conference room table. A lack of understanding the problem, yes. Definitely, almost every time. This is not solved by more data. It is solved by GEMBA. What do I mean by gemba? Well I am not going to define the word for you, if you don’t know, google it. What I will tell you is it is not about going and looking. That is just the start, go and observe. Observe until you understand what the problem really is. Ensure to capture your observations in a way that is easy to share with colleagues. This is the most valuable data you will collect and it is the only way to really understand a problem deeply.

Treating Understanding the Problem and Root Cause Analysis as separate. In our system they are separate steps. But really root cause analysis is just a deeper level of understanding the problem. Really when we “define” the problem we are just scoping. This is why in A3 there is only current and future state. No section for cause. That is part of the current state. This being said, we should not confuse gathering facts with looking for evidence of cause. If we do the later before the former when we find evidence of a possible cause, it is likely to shut our minds off to all the other possibilities. Not a good thing. So focus firstly on describing the problem and then on finding the causes but don’t treat them differently. The Gemba method applies for both.

Our job is finished when we contain a problem. This is the fire fighting culture again and again. Put the fire out, then move to the next one. Then comeback 6 months later and put the same fire out again. Personally I would rather push through to greater understanding and therefore better quality actions but if you must contain first to get breathing space, make sure you communicate that that is what you are doing. If you don’t others may assume that you have solved the problem and that sets the expectation that the problem will not recur.

Root Cause Analysis is not a workshop exercise. Similar to my first point in a way. Personally I hate the idea of a root cause analysis workshop. The idea of a root cause analysis is to trace carefully back through the events that led to the observed problem so we can find the origin(s). The origins being the root causes. Again, this is best done at the Gemba. It is worst done in the conference room. In the conference room you have limited access to facts (note I didn’t say data). You also usually do not have the people who were closest to the problem, you more likely have their manager or a colleague who doesn’t travel so much. You can get valuable ideas being generated in these sessions and good discussions. The only issue being that you probably cannot verify them immediately. You need to go do testing or gather information to confirm which ones are real and which ones were just ideas.

Transitioning to a Fishbone Diagram to a 5 Why’s is difficult for people who are new to problem solving. I might have been more into rant mode on the last couple of points. This one, however, is very concrete. I noticed this very early when I started teaching problem solving. We start by using a Fishbone diagram with 4M to generate possible ideas. We then evaluate (I won’t go into how) the probable cause and then use a 5 why’s to drill down to root causes. This is a great method that personally I have had a lot of success with over the years. However, I found an issue with beginners transitioning between the two. As we used to teach Fishbone, it is very much a “put what you think on the diagram and then evaluate”. Once evaluation is done start 5 whys. Simple right? Well no. When the problem solvers get into 5 whys they invariably get lost and confused. I think I know one of the causes for this. They do not know where they are on the cause and effect path when they start as they do not fully understand the structure of cause and effect. This results in them often going the wrong way or looping. It also usually results in them repeating stuff that was on their Fishbone as the relationships are not understood. To avoid this, I get my students to start mapping the cause and effect relationships already in the Fishbone diagram, after ideas creations and before evaluation. This has an additional effect of reducing the quantity of ideas that need evaluating.

People like to try and get away with being lazy. It’s not because they are bad people. People are just lazy. I see this in my classes in the following form. Using general expressions to describe a problem or a cause. Come on people, honestly, is that going to help? An example, someone gave me a possible cause “material bad quality”. Well…. I can’t say no to that but come on, how wide a statement do you want to use? What material? And what part of its specification is it not meeting that tells me it’s bad? So define material and define bad quality. If we do not start talking in this way about problems we are not going to solve any. Incidentally I had another experienced problem solver in a class who disagreed with me on this point. His argument was that you can check later what it means. Yes absolutely you can, but why not think harder about the problem in the first instance before spending time checking? We would save a lot of time. Also, do not forget that these general statements are also often used to throw the problem over the fence. If I say “supplier bad quality” and happen to exclude all possible causes related to my organisation it must be a supply chain problem, surely? Being precise removes ambiguity and saves time in problem solving. Period.

People Expect Root Cause Analysis to be some sort of solve everything instantly magic thingermejigger. As you and I know, it isn’t. Root cause analysis doesn’t even give you a solution! How rubbish is that? haha. It takes time and concentration and most important, diligence (more of a corporate dirty word than buzz word unfortunately) to really identify root causes. If you do take the time to do it well then you will be rewarded with the best quality information you could hope for when deciding what corrective actions you are going to take to prevent the problem from recurring. If you do it poorly or skip bits you will end up most likely doing too large a redesign or implementing a half assed checklist or similar.

They are surprised to discover there is a quality scale for corrective actions. AND it is not rocket science. It just requires, yes that phrase again, brain power. How likely is this solution to prevent the problem from recurring. What does its success depend on? People? (UhOh) machine? etc. I also immediately get the retort that it will always be more expensive to take the “best” solution. My response, on what timeline? If your timeline is long enough it will probably be the cheapest and I have yet to meet an organisation that admits it takes a short-term view to life (although we all know most do, all of the time)

So there are 10 reflections/thoughts/(insights?) on problem solving. Hope you find them useful. As always I am keen to hear what others think. Please comment 🙂

A rant about hotel rooms

If anyone knows any hotel executives please forward this post to them and ask them one simple question. Where do they charge their mobile phone?
I, like a huge number of people I am guessing, charge my phone next to my bed. Because I’m not a 13 year old girl (or my wife) this isn’t done to allow me insta access to Instagram but rather because I use my phone as my alarm clock and like to have it 100% charged at the start of the day in the somewhat vane hope that it may not need charging during the day. If you are with me in this give me a “hell yeah!”
I assume that people who have designed, commissioned and constructed hotels for the past 15 years largely share the same habit. So then why oh why did they fail to put a functioning power socket in anything resembling a close proximity to my bed? I mean there are more cushions than people on in the world on my bed when I arrive and definitely more cushions than there are power sockets close to my bed. Fashion over logic?
I’ve stayed in many hotels over the years. I’ve had a choice of pillow hardness, a dial that makes my mattress more or less firm, a boggling selection of light switches and reading lights to choose from  but time and time again what I see lacking is 2 power or usb sockets on the small table next to the bed.
Fortunately I came to the realization long ago that writing a blog post and complaining about this flaw in hotel room design would not change anything so I went and bought one of these:

And when I remember to pack it.  I’m happy.

If we talk problem solving for a minute what I have implemented here is a containment solution. You can argue how sustainable it is  but it is not a permanent solution in my book.

How we solve this question permanently will also need an answer to the question as to why hotel room designers are incapable of realising what the real needs of hotel guests are and producing a room that meets those needs. That would be a very popular question to answer!

Where to start being lean?

When taking an organisation that has absolutely no concept of what lean or even “best practice operations” is, where do you start? Or as a consultant you are called into start a “lean transformation” or something like that?


There are as many answers to this question as there are lean consultants in the world. Let us explore some of the more popular ones.

  • Understand your value streams first. We can call this the Womack approach. From what I have read and have heard this is the LEI general way to go about creating a lean transformation. I have never been able to convince a company to take this approach of identifying value streams, asserting management of the value streams and then driving those horizontally across the organisation. It is too big a pill to swallow at the beginning. I cannot help but think that if you could, it would be the most successful way to start.
  • Map your processes. Now, some might say this is the same as above. But it is not. Processes and value streams do not correlate well with one another. This could go back into the age old argument of what came first the process or the value stream but I need to finish that off with Irwin before writing about it. (Irwin is my fascinating American friend). So map your processes, then start to understand where they are going wrong. Work to make them more reliable (less output variation = better quality), available (better PTU) etc. Sounds like it could be sensible approach doesn’t it. The issue here is that you are completely ignoring how productive you are and what value there is being produced. You will become obsessed with perfecting your processes very quickly without considering what is outside.
  • Start small, show an example of good practice and then spread. I used to do this. This was my preferred method and I have had some success with it as well. For example, I had a supplier who was just in chaos. They worked hard but definitely not smart. The first thing that struck you when you visited was what a mess the place was. They said this was a consequence of their work. I disagreed. I showed them pictures and video of other production environments in far dirtier industries and then I went through the theory, application and positive results of implementing 5S. They seemed to be pretty convinced but wanted to pilot it first. So we took one small area of the factory where my parts were made and we implemented 5S in that area. We ensured that the senior management understood what good should look like and set up and auditing system for the MD daily. Everyday he went down and asked questions of what they were doing. Within a week the guys in the area next to it had got jealous of the attention and quality of the workspace that they started doing it themselves. Within 6 months the entire factory had gone through a 5S transformation and the SAP system could show the increase in productivity that had been achieved. Now this was not world class levels of 5S, it was more just cleaning stuff and applying labels but it showed how things can easily improve with the right attention. I am not advocating this method. Just putting it forward as an option. The downside of this is that it is rarely sustained well and only usually impacts small areas at a time leaving the big gains untouched.
  • Educate all management levels on lean. This one I like. One of the barriers to lean implementation (I would rather call it a lean organisation), is that a lot of people do not believe in it. Once they really see it working in a good way they usually get it but then they can find it hard to apply the principles to their own area. A recommended way to start then is by educating all management levels, together, about lean. Why is lean used, why it is beneficial and how to understand what value streams etc are. You then look to the organisation itself to take the principles and apply them directly. I can only think that this is probably the most painful way to start the lean journey but as long as management remain committed the business case will come as the improvements develop. I have not seen this approach ever proposed or used however. Why? I don’t know honestly.

So that is just some thoughts from me on how to start a lean journey. Please note the journey never ends so you need to be very committed. I look forward to your comments!

tape measure

Some thoughts on being better

I had some discussions the other day with a colleague and I think some people might find these useful. All comments appreciated as always. Please forgive any spelling mistakes or strange formatting, I am writing this using the WordPress app for the first time. I will check it and fix any mistakes later.

You rarely have too little information. Honestly. You probably have way to much, most of which is completely irrelevant. Be careful of this as people can use irrelevant but similar information to cloud rationality to meet their own agenda.

A good lessons learnt session is very hard. I don’t know anyone who can do them! I can’t. We can all sit round and have a coffee and a chat but if nothing changes where is the value? Get a pro in to help you and execute the actions immediately and vigorously.

No one loves your product more than you do. Stop loving your product and yourself and start loving your customer instead. As my ex girlfriend taught me (as she was breaking up with me), loving someone doesn’t just mean you go round telling them you love them. It means that you pay attention to the small things that add up to the big difference. That requires listening but mostly you have to care before you can listen properly. If you don’t care…. Don’t start. Want to know how to do it properly? Read Matt Watkinson’s book, you can buy it here.

Do not rush.. Ever. I can guarantee you, it will not end well. No one rushes and wins. This includes not skipping steps! In routes or methodologies we have the steps in an order for a reason, if we ignore these in our modern world we may as well go back to building axes from flint. I’m not recommending you sit around drinking coffee and eating cake all day instead of working, that will only give you a belly and a headache. Just be methodical in how you work and do not cut corners.

You work in quality, you are the example. Similar to the point above. Be the example, live the example. Follow the methodology correctly, do the root cause analysis properly, test things thoroughly before releasing, I could go on.

Quality costs, but not in the way you think. Everyone moans at me about how working in structured “quality ways” takes longer. I’m here to tell you all, it doesn’t. No more complicated than that. I see examples every week that if those involved had used a correct method to address a quality issue they would have spent magnitudes less time and money . Stop pretending it takes time. Learn how to do it without thinking and admit that the cost is more brain power. If you don’t have that, admit it and get help from colleagues.

How many is that? 6. Damn it’s nearly dinner time.

Always promote the team. Maybe I am drifting into generality here, or perhaps I did a long time ago. If you want to start solving problems good team work is essential. Problem solving teams are rarely high functioning as they are usually adhoc. You therefore need to be very conscious of applying good team work behavior from the start. If you don’t know about the life cycle of team dynamics and what I mean by high functioning teams get googling and do some reading. I’m too nice

Change management is common sense. Or is it? I thought so initially but then if we need people to tell us how to do it right, how can it be common sense? I like it personally and I think following models like that from Kotter do help a lot, if it is good enough for NASA….

And finally!

read my blog religiously. I don’t believe in religion but if you do I am happy for you. It’s a plug, yes, and maybe I have short changed you a part of the list. We will both get over it though

What are your tips and thoughts?

Kepner Tregoe will make you more effective in everyday business

First a disclaimer. I am not paid by Kepner Tregoe (KT), in fact, they do not even know that I am writing this post. They will once I publish it, I will email them and tell them. Lets start this with a short history lesson, of course it is about myself…..

I was introduced to the KT rational processes very soon after I moved to Sweden. They are most commonly taught as part of an intensive 3 day training course. I didn’t really get the tools to be honest. By the end of the 3 days I was quite confused about the how the problem solving process worked, completely befuddled by situation appraisal but pretty ok with potential problem analysis (after all it is risk management and I had just come from an intense project management environment) and very inspired by decision analysis. If you do not know Kepner Tregoe and do not know what these terms are it is not up to me here to fill you in on all that good stuff, instead I suggest you go hit them up at All the Kepner Tregoe consultants I have met have been fun, intelligent and helpful so do not hesitate to contact them. Let me continue the history lesson.

After about 5 years of occasionally doing decision analysis and not really using the other tools very much I moved positions and took a much greater responsibility for driving and support problem solving activities. At this point my director and I decided I really needed to know these KT tools better and should be capable of training others to use them. I therefore spent a fantastic 2 weeks (read; hardest 2 weeks of my professional life) in their program leader course in Princeton NJ (incidentally it was while I was in Princeton for the second time with KT I met my now wife for the first time). I can tell you if you think you don’t understand the processes after 3 days training you nail them in the first 48 hours of the program leader course. It’s all you do. Epic doesn’t even describe it. I came out of those 2 weeks feeling more confident about how to solve problems, support myself and others making decisions, mapping risks (potential problems in KT language) and appraising situations.

The KT tools are incredibly intuitive and probably provide some level of cognitive reprogramming as they definitely re-wire the way you approach business situations. They help you sort useful from garbage data, decide what is relevant to consider when you decide something, break things down into actionable items so you can really understand what to do next and plan for successful outcomes every time. I can say honestly that my knowledge of the KT system has helped me immensely through out my career since.

I thoroughly recommend you check them out and you will not regret it.

You’ve gotta start somewhere, right?

Welcome to my blog. I am Alexander Bromage. Go to my about page to find out more about me and keep reading on to understand my idea behind creating this blog.

I am always keen to share my thoughts with almost anyone who will listen. They may be right, they may be wrong but they are mine and to the most extent I am proud of them.  With my work I get exposed to a vast array of different situations and circumstances that I think others would benefit from understanding and knowing something about. Clearly however, I cannot go into a whole lot of detail in some cases so please do not ask too much more than what I write as I will always write as much as I can. Makes sense? So in short the purpose of this blog is to share my thoughts on a fairly wide range of topics relevant to me and possibly you.

With my career focusing on capital equipment engineering, project management and quality I’ve been to lots of different factories, facilities, trade shows and any other manufacturing centred place you can think of. I am currently happily employed in a large OEM and have worked in and with some of the biggest companies in the world since I left university.

Always as you read, please think of things you would like to ask me. I love discussions and different points of view and welcome your comments.