How to solve any problem

How to solve any problem


Problem solving is a powerful business tool that is often left to others to get done in businesses. Every team and every team member should be encouraged to actively participate in problem solving and the more frequently you do it the better you’ll get. Here is a simple problem solving process that anyone can follow to break down any problem and develop lasting improvements.


Step 1

Define the problem

Undoubtedly the most important step in the process. If we can’t define the problem, simply we cannot provide a solution.


Step 2


Is there any background information relating to the problem? How long has the problem been known? What has been attempted to fix the problem so far?


Step 3

Current state data

Data is king! This step will help take out any emotion from the problem and determine what is a problem and what is noise.

What, when, where, frequency etc.



Step 4

Root cause analysis

5 whys


Get past the symptoms and to the real cause


Step 5

Countermeasures and corrective actions to control the root cause/s


Step 6

Action plan if required

Step 7

Evidence of resloution


A Day on the Gemba

A Day On The Gemba



This week I had the opportunity to spend a whole day on the gemba, walking, observing the processes and talking to some great people. I try and spend some time on the gemba every day but unfortunately the amount of time can be too short too often. As we make our way up the ladder in any business we can find ourselves “too busy” to practice genchi gembutsu and this is a real shame for the business and more so for ourselves. We miss out on such a good learning opportunity.


So what did I learn on my day? As a manager we quite often lose sight of how the little things make a big impact on the real operations of the business. No matter what business you’re in, you have activities that really count, add value to your customers and bring results to your business. If you’re in a manufacturing business, this is the adding value to your raw materials to meet a customer requirement; most other activities undertaken by parts of the business are support and incidental to achieving your outcomes. The same applies if you’re in the service industry; only the “face to face” or contact time matters.


The biggest thing I noticed when on my gemba walks is the amount of non-value adding time our / your value add employees spend; this could be walking, moving product, looking for something, finding information. The list is long, but it’s important to remember that every minute your value adding employees are not adding value, you are losing money and your customer won’t pay for whatever it is they are doing. A business is structured with value adding and incidental teams for a reason, it is your role as a manager to ensure each team is working towards delivering the expected outputs.


My other learning has been we too often forget to celebrate the small wins and achievements that occur in a business every day. It is these small wins that accumulate into the milestone achievements of a business. We must recognize our teams and their achievements regularly to develop a culture of success. Conversely, small errors, issues and failures to follow process can add up to take us further away from our goals and objectives, our customers and ultimately our success.


To succeed in business is really a simple equation: deliver on customer needs, look after you staff, be a good corporate citizen, manage your costs.

Culture and Systems

Culture and Systems


What is most important, Systems or Culture? Sounds like an easy one…


Let’s look at the role systems and processes play in an organisation. What are they for? Well a business has processes in place to achieve consistent, reliable outcomes and outputs. When the procedures are followed the business and customers know what they are going to get, everytime. Of course this is within upper and lower tolerances and set standards.


So what role does culture play? Without the right culture in place you will have the wrong culture. There isn’t any middle ground. It’s either good or bad, right or wrong. Even with the most structured and robust procedures in place, if you have a bad culture (and I’m talking bad, as in people intentionally do the wrong thing) you will not achieve consistent outcomes. It’s easy to write procedures (can be time consuming), but to embed the processes and the habit takes time and culture change.


How can you tell if you have a bad culture? A bad culture can be good for another business and vice versa (within reason), so it isn’t always easy to see when looking from the inside but there always telltale signs. Inconsistent KPI’s between departments, silo mentalities, politicking are a few signs. I believe one of the biggest causes of a bad culture are competing KPI’s and lack of accountability. Often, this lack of accountability is not consistent and we will see some parts of the business being held to high account and others seemingly “untouchable”. Consistently applying this is important to achieve a good, positive culture. Competing KPI’s result in teams passing on a problem just to meet there individual targets. KPI’s need to be cross functional to break down the silo’s and bring teams together to work towards a common goal.

Red Tape

Good old red tape; every business has to deal with some sort of red tape. This is often imposed by regulatory bodies, customers and internally by business themselves for a good reason. The red tape can be a challenge for any business to cope with however for a government department it can be suffocating as they are often under stricter scrutiny from fellow government departments. In fact the Australian Federal Government has a target to reduce the impacts of red tape by $1,000,000,000 per year. Unfortunately this is looking like actually adding some red tape due to the approach taken at least in the short term.

In every business we need some amount of red tape to ensure and monitor good corporate governance. It can become so hard to get things done that people just don’t bother trying.

So how do we deal with red tape and avoid the suffocation? With good effective planning. The first step is to determine all of the regulatory and other reporting/red tape requirements.

When you have compiled a complete list of requirements the next step is to plan how you can maintain adherence to the requirements. You should add the resource requirements to your business planning process.

Through monitoring you can be sure you are fulfilling your obligations, both internal and external.

Customer Experience

As most families do, we enjoy going out for a meal on the birthday of a family member, friend or other occasions. We have been going to the same few places for a a couple of years now and haven’t had too many complaints. Occasionally the service has been poor or the food not quite right but on the whole we have been reasonably happy customers for a couple of years.

We decided to go somewhere different for my wife’s birthday recently. I have to be honest, I was a little nervous going away from what I knew and trusted to try something new but on the recommendation of a few friends we took the plunge.

On arrival we were greeted at the concierge desk by a friendly happy gentleman who took us to our table and made us feel right at home. We had quite a large group joining us and as each small group arrived the same smiling face brought them over to join us. We ordered our meals and bought drinks.

Now anyone with children will understand the frustration of having to wait a long time for meals with a table of 10 children waiting eagerly if not patiently. Well to our great surprise the meals were delivered very quickly by a small army of wait staff. The food was cooked to perfection with the large variety of meals from salads to steaks delivered almost at once and the correct temperature.

After our meals we enjoyed more drinks and deserts and relaxed for the evening.

Now, I mentioned at the start of this blog that we were not unhappy with our usual places but now we have a new favourite due to their superior customer experience. I’m not sure if they even know what they did right or what they are providing but they did it.

If your customers get the opportunity to try someone else how will your customer experience bring them back?



This is my challenge to all governments, at all levels of government. Lean management really is a perfect fit for government!

We all know about the benefits of lean management when applied effectively in the private sector, well the benefits are greater and have far greater impact when lean management is effectively applied in government. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits:

  • Increased efficiencies through elimination of wastes in processes
    • In the private sector this results in a corresponding reduction in costs associated with the process which can result in increased profits when effectively managed.
    • Think about all of the government services that are under delivered. By eliminating the wastes from the processes used to deliver these services, the same resources can be utilised to either improve the current standards of service delivery or potentially deliver more services. Now that’s what I call a benefit! Not just to a few but to the entire community!
  • Improved safety and quality
    • In the private sector, improved safety results in happier, safer and healthier employees while improved quality results in a better outcome or product for the customers. Both improvements also result in increased profitability for the organisation.
    • Improving safety and quality in government departments will also result in happier, safer and healthier employees which equates to stability. This will result in improved efficiency again! Improved quality will result in a happier community and once again, increased efficiencies! The cycle is never ending; when we do things right first time, we can move onto another activity; when we don’t get it right first time we have to return and perform rework, this is waste and annoys the community.

This is just a couple of the benefits of introducing lean management to government, there are many more and they all result in the same benefits; increased efficiency, happier employees and happier communities. There is no downside when managed effectively.

So how do we get to this future state? It really is simple, but it won’t be easy! We need to do two things simultaneously.

1) Bring in private sector expertise. Don’t skimp, bring in the best there is to infiltrate the system and challenge the thinking.

2) Leadership must evolve. Current leadership in many government departments is lacking lean exposure and is largely built of long term government employees. This is not necessarily a bad thing in moderation, however when not challenged by new thinking it results in group think.

These first two steps are critical to the success of lean in government. I apologise to all of the consultants out there, however we must bring the expertise in house. Consultants have their place to bring in specialist advice and delivery, however without the expertise in house we will not deliver sustainable, effective lean management. Look around the world at the high performing organisations; they all have the expertise in house. Lean thinking must become a normal part of business – “the way we do things around here”.

The next big change required is the structure of the departments.  We need to start looking at the services as value streams and structure the business units around the delivery of services rather than the departmental, hierarchical structures currently in place. This will result in the elimination of silos that currently exist.

All of this will have its challenges, but it isn’t difficult. What are you doing in your government department to make the change?

Investing in Technology

Thinking about investing in technology? First things first!


51% of small business owners want to improve their systems and processes as a priority in 2013 according to research by MYOB. This number is just as high in larger corporations! The problem is many organisations leap straight into an IT solution to solve their problems. There is a better way.


By inserting an IT system over your current business processes you are missing out on a grand opportunity to work on your business and embedding poor work practices into the system.


Take the opportunity to review your business processes before implementation of a system; actually, review them before you buy! I often see businesses with fantastic IT systems purchased and installed that just don’t meet there needs! This is an extremely common problem unfortunately, meaning the business has wasted money and time but is no better off; often they are worse off.


Spend some time challenging the processes involved, the time spent is well worth it.


  • Map out the current state
    • Include documentation, workflow, databases etc
  • Challenge every step
    • What works well?
    • Where is the waste?
    • Are there any challenges or struggles?
  • Brainstorm alternatives and countermeasures
  • Develop an action plan and begin implementing and testing the changes
    • Remember PDCA!
  • When the process is working smoothly (and is robust) without technology, find an IT solution that best meets your needs.


Now you can be sure your money will be well spent (or you may identify you don’t even need to spend it after all!).

Top Level Support

Top Level Support



An often asked question is “How do I get the support I need from the top level?”


Like everything else, there is a process to achieve this. Firstly, let’s define what support is. When given the choice of making an improvement most top level managers would jump at the chance, as long as it is a real improvement and solves a problem. When it comes to running an improvement program or instilling an improvement culture and dedicated resources, a different level of support is required. What is needed is a visible drive and ownership by the top level management; many times this is provided in the form of an email to stakeholders and a few words spoken at the Town Hall meeting – this is not good enough.


What is required is continuous discussion and communication of the importance of every team member being a part of the improvement process. Every position in the organisation has a role to play in the improvement journey and this should be reflected in the position descriptions. Running an improvement program (Lean, Six Sigma, Business Excellence – what ever the name, the desired outcomes are similar) goes much further than buying in a resource and running a few programs. To be successful, an organisation must change its culture; this is the difference between the successful lean businesses and the rest – culture. But how is a culture changed? Only through consistent behaviours and communication can a culture be changed. An email and some posters will do little (and may actually have an opposite effect) in creating a continuous improvement mindset in the organisation. And that is really what we are chasing, every employee, every day challenging the status quo to make small, effective improvements that in the long term compound into a better organisation.


This is driven from the top at the successful organisations because they get it. They’ve seen, touched and lived lean in their careers. You need to instil a belief in the top level management for them to truly believe!

Lean Strategy

Do you have a lean strategy?



What is a lean strategy and why should you have one? I was thinking about this recently when someone made a comment about why their business was pulling in different directions. They have pockets of the business doing some really good initiatives, however they seem to be pulling in different directions rather than working for a common goal. This is quite a common problem.

The best of intentions and even the best of actions will deliver no more than isolated short lived improvements unless they are aligned to and greater strategy. By developing a lean business strategy you will realise longer term success that is easily built upon for even more success.

A lean strategy should sit below an organisation strategy or plan. The org plan is used to guide your business in its long term development and will include your vision, mission and values. The lean strategy is a key component and provides a roadmap for identifying and eliminating the waste in your systems and processes. Remember, waste is anything your customers are not happy to pay for.

Your lean business strategy will increase your customer base, improve your profitability, improve your customer satisfaction and improve employee morale. One of the main reasons lean sometimes gets a bad name among employees is due to a lack of strategy. When all initiatives are focussed toward achieving a common goal, employees can see how the changes will make a positive difference and are more likely to come along for the journey rather than hold back.

So is it time you start your real journey and develop your lean business strategy?

Skills Analysis and Resource Planning

Skills Analysis and Resource Planning



Do you know if your team has the right skills to do the job?

The only way to answer this question is to first understand what skills are required. Regardless of what industry you are in, you need to deliver certain outputs, to deliver these you need to skills. The first step is to clearly define what these skills are. This information should be a part of the Position Description, however as I have seen all too often, this is a common gap!


The best way to understand what skills are required is to detail the process undertaken to deliver the outputs. From there you can define the skills required for these processes. Once you have these skills identified you can list them all and begin developing a skills matrix.


Without knowing what skills you require you cannot identify what gaps you may have across your team. Without knowing your gaps, how can you be confident of success? Management is all about empowering your team to be high performing, if you haven’t analysed the skill set within the team you are holding the team back. How can you determine if you can take on extra work if you don’t know if the skills are available? How can you assure the outputs are of the expected quality if you don’t understand your teams skills? The answer to both of these questions is you can’t!


Taking this further to resource planning; to be successful you have to plan. This goes for operational teams as well as strategic; if you have to deliver any project or product you have to plan the resources to be used within the processes. The greater the size of the delivery and the greater the complexity, the better the planning needs to be. Without understanding the required skills or the skills of your team you cannot plan effectively.


So the next you need to do with your team is define your required skills, analyse your teams skills set and identify the gaps. Without going through this process you just won’t know where you are.