John Crossan | Manufacturing Ownership Blog
Rigor (Mortis)? in Problem Solving PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Crossan   

I really enjoy the writings of Malcolm Gladwell. Both of his books "Blink" and "The Tipping Point" have been (and continue to be) best-sellers over the last 5 years.

For those not familiar with them, these could be described as very readable, social psychology. He identifies theories of behavior and describes research and well known, and less well known, real life situations that support them.

Issues like:

  • What caused the great decrease in crime in New York City in the 90's?
  • Why was Paul Revere, successful in quickly getting the countryside aroused to resist the British?
  • Why did the police act the way they did in the Rodney King affair?

He just published a new book "Outliers" and prior to buying it, I've been reading through various reviews, in newspapers and on the web. While the majority are positive, there are some (of course on the web) that are pretty scathing (and lengthy) (and boring) in their criticism. The majority of this criticism having to do with the level of rigor of the science behind the studies, and referencing other books that are much more detailed in their analysis.

While this may be true, the reality is that Mr.Gladwell is a very readable writer. His books are truly difficult to put down. Many, many people read his books (the whole book) and the books provoke them to actually think. Now that's not all bad. (A real plus too, is that he is predominantly positive about people and their motives).

Consider also the likelihood that the more detailed books, while perhaps purer in their science, are not read anywhere close to the same amount, and certainly don't stimulate the same amount of brain activity across the country. (Most are probably pretty good at shutting down brain activity.)

So this leads me to problem solving activities in plants and how to go about them. The typical engineering oriented approach tends to be very rigorous and detailed with the objective of getting to the absolute correct technical solution.

While this level of rigor seems perhaps commendable (root canals and colonoscopies are commendable too), the question to ask is what is the value of taking extended time to rigorously solve a single issue, if the majority of the attendees don't see any way they can apply such a process to the frequent issues they have to deal with.

This is a great approach when you're working with left brain dominant engineers, (for some I've worked with, these exercises seem almost orgasmic), but, thank goodness, not for most of the people in the world. And of course, to be realistic, there are many problems that do need a very rigorous process.

But what we're really trying to do in the majority of these exercises in plants is:

  • Getting people to realize the value in gathering enough accurate information to understand an issue before coming up with solutions.
  • Getting them excited about somewhat systematically, coming up with some solutions to problems as a group, valuing different perspectives and inputs.
  • Having them take the initiative to go ahead and put the solutions in place with the communication and commitment needed.

And if it's not exactly the right answer, it's at least an effort to make an improvement over what was in place before. Some learnings came from the exercise, and the next effort will be better. The really important piece is that we're developing ownership. Getting folks out of the "Just show up and do what your told" mode. That's the big piece in continuing to get ongoing improvement.

The majority of problems in plants are just not that difficult. Most issues tend to come back to lack of equipment care, and to lack of knowledge and basic process. Not to some fundamental design deficiency in equipment. Identifying the causes and solutions is the easy part. Getting the communication, involvement and commitment to get the solutions bought into and actually implemented in a timely manner is the bigger problem. And this is the essential part, so that people don't give up and the enthusiasm can be built on.