Today’s post discusses a better way for Lean managers to view problem solving and the opportunities that can come from problems you will encounter.
Of all the seasons, fall is definitely the favorite in my house. The days are a little cooler, the nights often involve the fire pit and roasting marshmallows, and the leaves put on a good show of color before falling to the ground. This past week, another fun fall tradition played out for our family as we accompanied my older son on a field trip to a local orchard. We toured the apple orchard, picked pumpkins, and spent hours playing on a castle made of hay bales and a pair of giant slides. We also got a chance to tour the processing operations, where the “real” magic happens. In my opinion, the best part about touring the apple orchard is the chance to drink fresh apple cider. I’m sure they sell apple cider throughout the year, but I never consider it outside of this season – it would be like downing a big glass of egg nog in June – unthinkable, right?
During the tour of the operations, the guide shared interesting facts (did you know apples are from the rose family, and are an excellent source of fiber?) and also something very curious – the apples used to make apple cider are actually the rejects from the orchard. Apples with no defects are sorted out and put on display for sale, but any with bruising or a blemish are set aside to be processed by the large cider press. I was amazed! How could the best part of the entire orchard experience come from the worst part of the apple harvest? Then, a scary thought entered my mind – if apples didn’t bruise, would apple cider even exist? Shaken by this thought, I grabbed an apple cider doughnut, and went for a walk among the apple trees.
As I was walking, I tried to imagine running an orchard, and how I would react if I picked an apple that I had worked all summer to nourish, water, and protect only to discover that apple had a blemish that made it basically worthless. I’m guessing my first reaction would be angrily chucking the apple on the ground. What kind of person spots bruises on an apple and sees an opportunity? A problem solver.
Lean Problem Solving
Lean thinking teaches us that, by their very nature, processes are going to break down over time. We will all face problems in our work today, tomorrow, and every day after that. It is our response to those problems that determines how they affect us and our customers. For some reason, though, our default reaction is frustration and surprise that the problem occurred. And as a Lean manager, if we react to problems with frustration or surprise, our team will pick up on that, and start hiding problems. Some apples with blemishes will get tossed out and wasted, while others will be strategically positioned on the shelf so the customer does not notice the blemish. Both forms of hiding are very dangerous, both come with consequences, and both can be avoided by simply changing our approach when confronted with problems.
If you live by the Lean maxim “No problem is a problem”, problems become opportunities to improve and learn. I’ve always appreciated the double-meaning in this phrase. On the one hand, you should see problems as an opportunity. On the other hand, if your team tells you that they aren’t experiencing any problems, you know you’ve got hidden and/or unseen problems to tackle. Your team’s ability to recognize and respond appropriately to problems will come directly from your ability to respond in the right way when problems are presented.
What if, as Lean managers, we celebrated the problems that our team encounters every day? What benefits could we achieve as a team if bad apples were seen as something different, something more useful? Have a glass of apple cider around the fire pit this weekend while you think it over.
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