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Mark Rosenthal


Troubleshooting by Defining Standards

Five questions to ask and address in sequence

Published: Tuesday, April 21, 2020 - 11:03

Sometimes I see people chasing their tails when trying to troubleshoot a process. This usually (though not always) follows a complaint or rejection of some kind.

A few years ago I posted “Organize, Standardize, Stabilize, Optimize” and talked in general terms about the sequence of thinking that gives reliable outcomes. This is a series of questions that, if asked and addressed in sequence, can help you troubleshoot a process. The idea is that you must have a very clear yes to every question before proceeding to the next.

Question 1: Is there a clear standard for the outcome?

Why is this important? Because if you don’t have a clear expectation of what “good” looks like, then your definition of “not good” is subjective and varies depending on who, what, and when things are being looked at.

If there’s no clear standard for the outcome, then define:
• What are you trying to accomplish from the customer’s perspective? What does “good” look like? How do you know?
• How does the team member performing the work know (and verify) that this expectation has been met or—not met—each time?
• This includes not only the physical quality expectations but also the required timing.
• What do you want the team member to do if she finds a problem? What is your process for escalation and response?

Question 2: Is there a clear standard for the method that will achieve the standard results?

Why? Because if you (as an organization) don’t know how to reliably achieve the standard, you are relying on luck.

If there’s no clear standard for the method, then define:
• What steps must be performed, in what order, to get the outcome you expect?
• What are the content, sequence, and timing that will give the desired outcome?
• How will the team member doing the work know (and verify to himself) that the method was either applied—or not applied—according to your standard each time?
• What do you want the team member to do if he can’t or didn’t carry out the process as defined? What is your process for escalation and response?

Question 3: Are the conditions required for success present?

Why? Because if the team member does not have the time, tools, materials, or environment that are required to execute the process as designed, she must improvise and compromise.

If the conditions aren’t present, then define:
• What conditions must exist for your standard method to work?
• What conditions must exist to enable the team member to consistently execute to the standard with no workarounds?
• How will you ensure that the conditions exist prior to process execution each time?
• What stops the process from proceeding if the required conditions do not exist?

Question 4: Is there variation in execution?

Why? If you have defined the method and ensured that the conditions required for success exist, then you must examine what other factors are causing process variation:
• Confirm the standard conditions exist. Correct or restore. Check for process stability.
• Check for other conditions which affect execution. Establish new standard conditions. Check for process stability.
• Confirm clear understanding of the standard method. This would be a good time to engage TWI Job Instruction. Check for process stability.
• For all of the above, verify all suspect process output vs. the standard for outcome and results.
• If you discover an alternative work method that is clearly superior to the standard, then confirm, capture, and verify it.
• Define a process for process improvement—i.e., how do alternatives get confirmed and incorporated vs. random mutations?
• To increase stability, define your mistake-proofing/poka-yoke at the point where the process execution varied.

Question 5: Was a standard method followed but the results were not as expected or a surprise?

Why? After we have verified process stability, then we can ask, “Does the process that we specified actually work as we predicted?
• Reexamine your standard method and conditions.
• Identify process failure points and sources of variation.
• Adjust the process to address those failure points and sources of variation.
• Repeat until your process is capable and consistently performs to the standard.

Question 6: Does everything work OK, but you want or need to do better?

Only a stable baseline can tell you how well you are performing today. Then you can assess if you need changes. If you do, then reset your standard for expectations. Return to question one.

First published Dec. 5, 2019, on The Lean Thinker.


About The Author

Mark Rosenthal’s picture

Mark Rosenthal

Mark Rosenthal is an experienced lean manufacturing/quality director and manager with more than 20 years of experience implementing continuous improvement in diverse organizations. He brings deep understanding of the Toyota Production System and has proven ability to see any organization’s potential. Rosenthal is a change agent who facilitates the process of discovery to quickly make an impact on the way people think, enabling them to cut to the core issues and get things moving by engaging the entire team to develop solutions that affect the bottom line.