The Lean Approach to Troubleshooting

Inevitably, there are times when one of our production processes encounters a problem that needs to be solved. To reach a solution, we employ some type of troubleshooting process. The following describes a lean approach to troubleshooting.


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The basis of lean thinking is the elimination, or at least reduction, of waste. Waste is any activity that does not add value to the product or service. Ideally, troubleshooting should employ lean thinking as it strives to get a production process back online and provide value to the customer (either internal—the next step in the process, or external—the end user) as quickly as possible. 
A lean troubleshooting process employs the following stages:
1. Define the problem. It is critical to accurately define the problem upfront. A lean troubleshooting process requires using limited resources wisely, and focusing on a problem that does not exist can waste many hours. Time must be devoted to working on the real problem. This can be done in many ways, including observing the process, reviewing production data and gaining feedback from either internal or external customers.
2. List the steps in the process. All steps in the process need to be listed in proper sequence, even those thought to be minor, as any step can turn out to be the cause of a problem.
3. Classify the steps. This is the stage in which lean thinking can prove most useful. Each step can be described as either value-added and necessary to the process or non-value-added. Non-value-added steps can be further described as Type 1, a step that can be eliminated, or Type 2, a step that cannot be eliminated immediately.
4. Analyze the steps and identify the potential source (or sources) of the problem. Our analysis will help isolate which steps, either value-added or non-value-added, might be causing the problem. If we eliminate a non-value-added step, we eliminate a potential problem source. We may find that a certain step thought to be critical can be omitted under certain conditions without negative consequences, leading us to question the need for that step at all. Our analysis may also reveal a lack of consistency in how the step is performed, either from person to person or job to job. We also might find that availability of tools or equipment is insufficient, tools and equipment are not working as prescribed, changes have been made recently to the materials used in the process, employees are making adjustments on a “trial-and-error” basis and much more. 
5. Develop possible solutions. Once the analysis stage is complete, potential solutions can be developed. These solutions may include streamlining or modifying necessary activities. They also may point to the need to combine certain activities to make the process run smoother or to change the order in which the activities are performed. Solutions can involve doing activities offline to make them easier or more accurate, using different tools or equipment to reduce adjustments in favor of predetermined repeatable settings, or seeking more visual feedback when conditions change. Solutions can even include opportunities to train employees in a different manner to make them more effective in performing their functions.
6. Select the best solution and implement. In the end, the best solution must be the one that has the greatest likelihood of success and is the easiest to accomplish.
7. Monitor results. Troubleshooting does not end with the implementation of a solution. Results need to be monitored to ensure the solution really does away with the problem. At times, problems resurface. Such a problem might be in a different form than was originally identified, but it is there nonetheless. The length of time needed to monitor will vary, but it must be sufficient for everyone to have confidence that the solution worked or to recognize the need to try something else.
8. Take further action as needed. If during the monitoring stage we conclude that our solutions prove successful, then no further action is needed. We should take pride in the fact that we followed a logical series of troubleshooting steps and solved a problem. If we do find a recurrence of the problem, alternative solutions will have to be developed and tried as the troubleshooting process continues. Yet, as disappointing as this may be, we should remember that our step-by-step approach was sound and we acted on the best information we had. Ultimately, this too can be viewed as a learning experience in our continuous improvement effort.