“No Problem” Is A Problem

By on October 5, 2016
"No Problem" Is A Problem

The single most important question that any organization considering the implementation of Lean should ask itself before embarking on the Lean journey is, “Okay, if we go Lean, will it really make us more competitive?

The answer to this question is an unequivocal “Yes.”

The next question that would be reasonably asked is, “Okay, if it is going to make us more competitive, how’s that going to happen?

I’ll answer that question by saying, “No problem is a problem.”

You’re undoubtedly thinking, what in world does that mean. Let me explain. Early in 1986 I headed up a group of consultants that did team-building training at the New United Motors Plant, also referred to as NUMMI, in Fremont, California. NUMMI was a joint venture of General Motors and Toyota. Toyota entered into this joint venture because they wanted to jump start their manufacturing capabilities in the United States; for GM this plant gave them an opportunity to learn Lean manufacturing; aka The Toyota Production System.

When NUMMI opened, many of the supervisors, in response to this question from their managers, “Are there any problems?” would answer with “No problem,” a response that can be heard in many workplaces. Managers ask “Any problem?” and supervisors respond, “No problem.”

After hearing “no problem” for several weeks, the management team at NUMMI brought supervisors together and told them, “No problem is a problem.”

Why would they say this? If one accepts the premise that all work processes are imperfect, then there have to be problems. And NUMMI’s supervisors were expected to know what these problems were. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be meeting one of their primary job responsibility which was to drive the continual improvement of all work processes, drawing on the expertise of line workers.

So here’s a short answer to the question, “How’s Lean going to make my organization more competitive?It’s going to increase the degree to which your employees are fully engaged in their work, becoming energized problem-finders and expert problem-solvers.

And what drives full engagement? It all starts with managers and supervisors who never say “no problem” in response to the question, “Any problems?” And it starts with supervisors and managers who continually engage employees in problem-solving.

What does full engagement look like? Let’s start with what it doesn’t look like. Several years ago I was walking through a manufacturing plant asking line workers if they could think of any ways in which their workspaces might be reconfigured so their work would be more productive. At one work station, I noticed a simple change that would obviously improve work flow and asked the fellow who worked in the area what he thought about it. He looked straight at me and said, “George, nothing makes any difference as long as I get to work until 3:30.” I thought what an incredibly sad commentary on this person’s life and work. This worker was simply saying what too many workers think: I just want to get through the day.

Worker passivity and disengagement can be turned around, often with dramatic results.

Here’s an example of what full engagement looks like. In another plant in which I worked, the company was having problems with a product which, after being stamped in a large press, was sliding down a conveyor belt rather than being carried up by the conveyor to a packing station. When first purchased, these belts had small rubber ribs that carried the product but, over time, the surface of the conveyor became smooth and the product no longer adhered to its surface. One obvious fix would be to replace the conveyor but that was relatively expensive.

A line worker named Kevin came up with a much less expensive fix. As he told the story in a 5S team meeting, “When I was taking a shower last night, I thought about hair spray.” Other team members said, “What?” Kevin responded, “I thought about the characteristics of hair spray, it’s sticky and it can be washed off.” (This product was sent from the plant to be chrome plated so whatever residual hair spray that might be on it would be washed off during the chrome plating process.) He continued, “It occurred to me that if we applied a small amount of hair spray to the surface of the conveyor belt it would be sticky enough to carry the product.” Kevin’s idea was tried and it worked.

What’s the really important part of this story? It’s that Kevin was thinking about work while he was at home taking a shower. In other words he was actively engaged in his work. He was actively engaged in identifying and solving problems. No “no problem” for Kevin.

Here’s another example. In the worldwide distribution center of a major manufacturer, the folks in the shipping department were frustrated by having to constantly search for shipping labels, labels that were scattered, haphazardly, on the bottom shelf of small carts. One of workers named Molly decided to take direct action. She went home, described the problem to her husband, and on their own time, they designed and built holders for the labels that could be attached to the shipping area carts and make them easily retrievable. A simple solution. Time and money saved as a result of the work of an employee who was fully engaged in her work. No “no problem” for Molly.

As “Kevin’s” and “Molly’s” multiply throughout your workforce, their creativity and knowledge, their engagement with work, will have a very substantial and continuing impact on your company’s productivity.

We have Lean transformation training and coaching resources your organization can use right now to trigger and stimulate the knowledge and creativity of your Kevin’s and Molly’s. And when this happens a force will be unleashed in your organization that will be a catalyst for significant increases in productivity and profitability.

Let’s meet and review how our well-tested Lean resources can be put to work for your organization. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s talk. I believe you’ll find it time very well spent.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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