How much time is needed to identify problems?

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

UNDER lean management, the basic goal is for everyone to actively seek problems to solve. This may appear unnatural as most people try to avoid complications and difficulties. But that’s not the way to should look at it. If you’re not seeking problems, then you’re part of the problem. “No problem is a problem,” said Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System.

What he meant was, if you’re not looking hard enough, you’re not working smart enough to help your organization curb invisible wastes. In other words, progress can’t be achieved if you’re happy with the status quo. If you think everything is in order, then that mindset will be your Waterloo.

Go to any factory shop floor, even those that are touted to be world-class. Suppose, it’s your first time to visit and the only thing you know about the company is its products and services which you found on its self-serving website. The factory has its high-tech equipment and large manual workforce to produce the best products. It looks efficient, orderly, and a well-oiled production set-up. But what you can’t see are hundreds of hard to detect wastage, both minor and major. For one, you may not know the actual value of the factory’s inventory of finished goods and raw materials. Management accountants may know the actual value on paper, in as much as they treat it as assets, unlike kaizen and lean managers defining inventory as the evil of all wastes.

There was one plant manager who appeared unperturbed by the millions of pesos stacked in his warehouse although he knew it was a form of waste. He told me he’d rather allow that waste for three months instead of being caught flatfooted when a surge of orders came from customers. But what if there is no order because of, maybe, a new and better quality competing product that is marketed at a lower price? What if the inventory has been lost due to a calamity or robbery? That’s not all. There are also many other things to consider.

How about the set-up time needed to change a machine or its configuration so that it can handle a new type of product? If you don’t calculate the set-up time, which requires workers and machines to be idle for some time, that’s another big issue to consider. What if you know the cost but do nothing about it? It could lead to a tricky problem.
After all, costs must be not only measured but also need to be reduced.

In doing all of these, how much time do you need to identify a problem and make it visible to all? Author and business consultant Mark Eaton prescribes the five-second rule. In “The Lean Practitioner’s Handbook” (2013), Eaton says the five-second rule is a mandatory concept of the visual workplace so that everyone can identify problems and/or progress of the situation in five seconds or less. You only need a good pair of eyes to do this and everyone must be able to understand the situation within that period. The longer time needed for everyone to identify a problem, the worse it is for the organization.
In other words, your factory or office must be like an international airport.

Even if you’re at the Narita airport or any other airport (except the Ninoy Aquino International Airport), you will readily understand what’s happening around you even if can’t read Nihongo or other foreign languages. Even if you are an uneducated person, your principal clues will be the visual graphic signs that will help you navigate inside an airport. Without them, you’ll be at a loss.

That’s why you can see in many world-class companies a lot of laminated photographs and graphic illustrations, some as big as letter size stationery of what’s good or bad and what’s before or after, either on the shop floor or in the backroom offices. Some factories showcase actual defective product or wasted raw materials prominently for workers and their management to see and understand the loss; better if it also showed the monetary value of the lost or damaged item.

Remember, being productive and being busy are different things. You may have spent an average of ten hours at the workplace and is feeling exhausted, but what have you done to actively identify hidden problems?

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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