This issue from PRINTING United Alliance features articles on problem solving, assessing improvement culture and practices, and how one company dramatically reduced spoilage. The practice of continuous improvement offers printing and graphic communications companies a way to create a sustainable competitive advantage.
Articles in this issue:
- High-Speed Problem Solving
- Some Questions to Consider
- Spoiling Profits: How to Reduce Rework and Reruns
High-Speed Problem Solving
David Veech, Leadersights
We need to develop strong, robust problem-solving skills not just for a few technical experts, but for every person in our organization and every student in school. I think that the only sustainable competitive advantage any company can have is the ability of its people to sense, define, and solve problems more and more quickly.
Why do I think problem solving is so important?
Because it’s not about the problem, it’s about the learning.
The way we learn begins with a very linear, accumulative process where we first gain basic knowledge that we may or may not understand fully. In this knowledge phase, someone might share a set of facts with us and we should be able to repeat these facts back to the teacher or to someone else. Knowledge is the first level of learning.
Next, if we place enough value on those facts to spark continued interest, we will seek to understand more about them. Understanding is the second level of learning.
If we value and understand what someone is sharing with us, it will actually change our behavior as we start to apply what we know. The only way we can tell if someone has actually learned something is in their behavior. Application is the third level of learning.
In the application of any task, because the environment is never absolutely stable, we can expect to encounter problems. A problem is anything that happens that we didn’t expect to happen. Here’s where our learning changes.
At higher levels of learning, we don’t continue on a nice linear, accumulative path. Three mental activities work in a series of rapid cycles as we analyze what we’ve experienced, evaluate what that means, and create something new. Whatever we create has to be analyzed and evaluated and usually adjusted.
I think the true secret for solving tomorrow’s problems isn’t to anticipate any specific problem but rather to prepare the organization and the workforce for anything. If we can sense a problem coming; if we can see when it actually begins to impact us; and if we have people who know how to think critically and face the hard facts about what they see, then we’ll be able to respond nearly immediately.
We may not get it right the first few times, but with a culture that is willing to try anything and persist, we’re more likely to get to an effective solution much more quickly that those who are more protective of the status quo.
A culture like that is characterized by high self-efficacy among its people. High self-efficacy translates to a willingness to try new things and persist through failure. Solving tomorrow’s problems depend on this, so we need to start building that today. It isn’t hard, but it does require focused leadership. The Lean tools we already use—systems like 5S, Standardized Work, and Training Within Industry (TWI)—work best when all leaders fully understand the tools’ underlying, developmental intent.
Remember, problem solving is less about finding a solution to a particular problem and more about creating a capable and engaging workplace culture.
Some Questions to Consider
John Compton, Compton & Associates
Occasionally I provide consulting services to printing companies focused on quality, productivity, and continual improvement. Often it involves an assessment of their improvement culture and Lean practices. Consequently, I spend time in the gemba in conversations with workers about their activities. I’ve found the best way to encourage conversations and elicit insight during these visits is to ask open-ended questions. I’d like to share some of the questions I’ve found most helpful and explain why I think you might find them helpful as well.
- What should be happening? What is actually happening? What can you tell me about the difference?
OK, there are three questions here, but most everything underlying higher rates of improvement involves answers to these questions so I almost always start with them. “What should be happening?” is another form of the Toyota Kata’s “What is your target condition?” By asking this, it limits responses such as “we need to…,” and “we’re trying to…” When evaluating what actually is happening, it’s necessary to know the standard, otherwise we have nothing with which to compare.
“What is actually happening?” is asked to grasp the current condition in the same terms as the target. When the current and target conditions are expressed in differing measures and terms, the gap between the two is impossible to clearly comprehend.
“What can you tell me about the difference?” is asked to gauge how well the person understands the gap between what should be happening and what is actually happening. If the process has deteriorated, can the person explain what has changed or why the standard is not being achieved? Clearly, if one or both initial questions cannot be answered, the person will be unable to answer the third.
In my experience, answers to these three questions give fundamental insight into the improvement abilities and practices in place at the company. Process improvement requires that practitioners understand the difference between the desired condition and the actual condition so that they can take effective action.
- What are two or three concrete examples of improvements you have made recently?
This question helps me learn if improvements are an integral part of their everyday work. I’m not looking for big things, just small, everyday types of improvements that can be made by everyone. If people working on the factory floor, for instance, cannot provide me with any small, simple examples, it tells me that the company does not have a culture of continual improvement.
At the end of the day, process improvement is about removing unnecessary hassle (waste, complexity, and annoyances), satisfying the needs of internal customers, and maximizing value. You don’t really need to know anything else. If you’re able to get all your co-workers to identify and deliver what their internal customers want, while they are continually minimizing the amount of unnecessary hassle for themselves, you are on track to creating flow.
- What exactly is the problem you are trying to solve?
I ask this question when someone is involved in a kaizen (improvement) event to gain insight into the problem or unwanted condition being addressed. One of the most common situations is that problems have been defined in general terms and thus are open to differing interpretations. Without a clear understanding by all involved of the problem and the target (or new standard) condition to be achieved, improvement activities will focus on the tools (5S, standard work, visual workplace, etc.) and not the needed improvement in performance. Jumping to a tool or solution that is only partially related to the problem wastes dollars and time.
For example, I’ve seen many 5S initiatives conducted that resulted in cleaner, neater work areas, but did nothing to reduce cycle times, reduce costs, or improve quality, all of which were needed by the companies conducting them. Prior to the beginning of any kaizen event, I want everyone involved to have a detailed understanding of the problem, including measurement and facts of its severity as well as the new, desired standard condition. Clarify the problem, break it down, and set a target condition before changing anything.
- What two or three strategic business objectives are your continuous improvement practices seeking to influence, and how do you ensure that your practices are aligned with your objectives?
This is a great question for anyone in the company, but especially for the leadership team. I ask it of managers because it’s common for printing companies to start a Lean/CI initiative without a clear understanding of the needs of the business and how CI can help meet those needs. It’s not surprising that it results in a scatter-shot approach to tool-based kaizen events with little sustained improvement in key performance areas. The intentions are noble, but the results are insufficient.
In my experience, printing companies that link their improvement efforts to their strategic business goals seem to outperform those who do not. This is often achieved through a method called hoshin planning where the company’s performance goals are cascaded through the organization with increasing detail for each area. Improvement activities are then focused on those areas and processes where the greatest opportunities for gains exist.
Of course, many more questions can be asked, all of which are intended to reveal something. After asking each of these questions I listen closely because the answers will lead to further learning for all involved. Remember, curiosity is the secret sauce of Lean.
Spoiling Profits: How to Reduce Rework and Reruns
Jim Workman, PRINTING United Alliance
How do you reduce total instances of spoilage (rework/unplanned waste) even while sales are growing? During this June’s CI Ready! virtual event Steve Kirk and Kathy Osterberg (vice president of operations and quality manager, respectively) revealed how their company, GLS / NEXT Precision Marketing, did it. Remarkably, during a 13-year span the marketing technology and printing company was able to reduce spoilage instances by over 400%. Spoilage has been under 1% as a percentage of sales for the last five years and is still trending downward (0.77% in 2020).
Kirk and Osterberg stressed that having a system to reduce mistakes is vital for long-term survival. Putting a system in place, however, takes dedication, perseverance, resources, and acceptance that accumulating small improvements makes a big difference over time. If done smartly, a system focused on spoilage reduction will create accountability within the workforce and alter behaviors.
The effort to decrease spoilage began with tracking spoilage dollars in a basic spreadsheet each month. Over time, it became apparent that the information needed to be more visually appealing, easier to interpret, and updated more frequently (weekly versus monthly). Goals were established, along with a color-coding scheme: green indicated goals were met, red meant underperformance, and yellow was neutral. The number of occurrences were added, and finally so too was the spoilage percentage (% of sales). Prior year comparison numbers were eventually included, and the yearly goal made more pronounced. Over time, other changes were made, such as using the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to issue a daily report so that instances of spoilage were reported on within 48 hours.
As the information gathering and reporting system improved, GLS / NEXT began producing spoilage reports for each department manager. It then took the bold step of deciding to track every spoilage instance regardless of amount (the company had previously focused on instances above $500). Kirk and Osterberg point to that decision as important, since many more improvement ideas and solutions were put in place and dealing with small issues can eliminate the causes of major spoilage in the future.
The push for greater accountability and problem solving led to formalizing the process of meeting with employees to identify the root cause of mistakes and institute countermeasures. That information is put into a company database allowing for the effectiveness of countermeasures to be checked. A new approval process required that, depending on the dollar amount of a spoilage occurrence, a manager or executive approve the conclusions reached.
As the positive impact of these efforts became clear, the company doubled down on its continuous improvement mindset by creating 4 x 8 ft. improvement boards (displaying safety, quality, delivery, and cost information) in each department. Those metrics are tracked and updated daily by each department. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) were reevaluated and put into a new format, with the importance of each process explained. Work areas are using the Lean concept of 6S (sort, straighten, shine, standardize, sustain, safety) to be organized, clean, and make problems visible.
Keeping spoilage under 1% is now the only acceptable goal for GLS / NEXT. Its culture has evolved so that employees recognize the importance of minimizing spoilage, get timely feedback on performance, and know they are expected to contribute to improving processes to avoid future mistakes. You can read more about the company’s approach to spoilage reduction here.
Continuous Improvement Newsletter is published quarterly by PRINTING United Alliance in support of its annual Continuous Improvement Conference (August 22–25, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio). Past issues are available at ci.printing.org/ci-newsletters. Send submissions and subscription requests to email@example.com.