Problems are Gold to be Treasured

Lean Quote Roundup

In his excellent book The Remedy, Pascal Dennis gives this beneficial advice on improvement:

“Problems are gold to be treasured, not garbage to be buried. Problems are the process talking to us, telling us where our management system is weakest. We need to use our stethoscopes to probe deeper, get to the root cause, and fix it. It we tune out problems, we’re lost.”

I love the mental image this quote produces. Treasuring problems is completely unnatural in most organizations. Problems in a business are like weaknesses in a sports team. A sports team’s fans don’t want to admit the team has any faults, but unless the team’s coach recognizes and addresses the weaknesses, they’ll never win the championship. Certainly, we all want to see our companies win, but we must be coaches, not just fans, to help them improve.

Problems are Gold to be Treasured

A healthy exercise to begin treasuring problems, and finding solutions, is a problem brainstorm. Gather your team around and spend 20 minutes listing all the problems and emergencies you have experienced in the last month. I like to use post-it notes for every idea so I can easily rearrange them, but a whiteboard also works well. Once you have a thorough list of problems, begin organizing them into main categories. “We ran out on item Z”, “we have way too much of item Y”, and “we had to expedite inbound shipments of item X” may all be grouped together into one category of “Inventory Management Problems,” or they may represent three different categories based on your circumstances. Usually, 80% of the issues fall into just a few categories, while the remaining 20% are outlying concerns.

The next step is to begin analyzing the common root cause of the problems in each category. I recommend the 5 Whys technique to dig deep into the problem’s origin. This will probably extend beyond the initial brainstorm meeting. A good analysis often takes an uncomfortable amount of honest thought and analysis. Often the instinct of self-defense drives us to hide problems. Focusing on solutions rather than blame can help break down obstacles hiding true problems.

The concept of listening to problems as the key to improvement has many other applications outside of business. Rather than ignoring problems with ourselves or relationships with others, we can instead use a stethoscope and learn the real reason for the trouble. Ignoring problems rarely leads to real and meaningful solutions. However, the reward for investing the effort to learn and enact appropriate solutions highlights the value of problems.

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