Tag Archives: Problem Solving

Stop Fighting Emergency Fires in Five Steps

Whenever I find myself spending most of my day fighting fires, I try to step back and understand why. A great framework that I like to use comes from the Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. The firefighting example takes a process through five steps, going from “emergency crisis mode” to “no problem mode.”

The Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence program is a government sponsored award that focuses on promoting quality in US organizations. You can see the images below and other great resources on their graphics page.

Step One – Running and Reacting

1The first stage is where most of us start when we think of fighting fires. We react to emergencies that pop up by dropping everything and running to what’s urgent. If this only happens once or twice, then it might not be worth the effort to improve the response. However, the problems that occur frequently or have large impacts are the ones that need to move beyond step one. Focus on those problems for moving them through steps two through five.

Step Two – Running Less and Reacting Quicker

2If fires pop up in the same places frequently, then installing extra hoses in that area can really help. Likewise, if you repeatedly face the same emergency, making additional resources available in those areas can cut down the size or length of an emergency. Taking a few minutes to create simple, small countermeasures makes reacting easier.

Step Three – Response Game Plan

3Once countermeasures are in place, how can we get everyone on the same page? When the next emergency strikes, who contacts whom? Addressing these issues by making a game plan can make the response much more effective. More importantly, getting others involved makes the emergency less dependent on you. If you can’t ever leave the office because you’re the only one that knows how to handle certain problems, then this step can free you from that burden.

Step Four – Automated Response System

4Just like a sprinkler system automatically dousing flames, you can build a system that handles emergencies automatically. Basic computer automation or alerts can take care of many problems that frequently pop up. Emergencies that are more complex may require some IT investment, but many of those solutions are worth the price tag. Conversely, significant investment may not be necessary if a manual response system will work just as well.

Step Five – Innovate Emergencies Away

5This final step is not “brainstorm how this emergency doesn’t happen again.” That type of thought should happen at any stage. Instead, this is a systematic change in the design of work flows, products, and systems so that unexpected problems are less common and less damaging. A product’s cost can often be reduced by 70% when the designers’ goal is to make the product easier for manufacturing. Similarly, perhaps 70% of your emergencies could be avoided by focusing on internal customers and avoiding downstream emergencies. Of course, balancing the needs of internal customers with those of external customers is difficult. Nevertheless, keeping the needs of both customers in mind will help reduce emergencies for which you can’t plan.

How to Use the Five Steps of Firefighting

Whenever a problem arises, I look at where in the five steps my response to the emergency is. Based on the size and frequency of the problem, I can then look at options for moving the response to the next level. Few fires need all five steps; such investment would be overkill. However, simply knowing at what stage each of my problems is helps me prioritize my improvement efforts. Soon the categorization becomes second nature, and process improvement becomes easier, quicker, and more effective.

Best of all, there’s less fires to fight. And the fires I still have to fight are easier to put out.

At what stages are the recent emergency responses you’ve initiated?

[Images Source]

When Semi- is Better than Fully Automatic

Christopher Hatcher published a great article over at 21st Century Supply Chain about when semi-automatic processes are better than automatic ones. As an example, he talks about the exciting day in army basic training when he switched his gun from semi- to fully automatic. His observation is important: accuracy often goes down dramatically. He says,

“I can’t remember if I actually hit any targets that night, but it was so cool to try the automatic setting.”

Many companies go through a similar exciting phase – especially young companies that are learning how to expand their operations. Instead of taking time and really thinking out each move, we often want to find an automatic process that will “just make everything work and not bother me anymore.” When making investment decisions, it’s tempting to buy the Ferrari solution with all the options when the less glamourous bicycle product might actually work better.

In addition to spending too much on the automatic solution, we often create additional problems or miss valuable opportunities by letting processes run on autopilot. Many opportunities for improvement present themselves through deep understanding of how processes work. That understanding can only happen when we participate in the process.

What processes in your business would benefit from switching to semi-auto for a trial period? Which might benefit from a permanent semi-auto setting? Could less automation make some of your processes more efficient in the long-run?

For example, I often learn more from updating important metrics by hand than metrics that update automatically. That extra attention frequently brings me important insights.

Hatcher’s article includes these wise words:

“Running most operations in automatic mode is likely a wise choice, but it’s important to understand which parts of the process can trigger the responsible party to intervene when necessary. Automatic sometimes just scatters lots of bullets with a great deal of sound and fury, but semi-automatic usually hits the target every time.”

Check out the full article here: Will that be automatic or semi-automatic to manage your supply chain?

[Image Source, modified]

“I Fight for the Users!” – What Tron Taught Me about Serving Customers

A Review of the Movies

In the Disney movies Tron and Tron: Legacy, the character for whom the movies are named famously declares, “I Fight for the Users!” In the world those movies create, the Tron character is passionately loyal to the humans who designed and use the computer program. It’s been a few years since Tron: Legacy came out, so here’s a short clip to remember the movie:

Tron - UserYouTube – Tron Recognizes a User

Toward the end of the clip, Tron (also known as Rinzler) sees his opponent bleed and realizes that his opponent is a user (human). Because of his loyalty to users, Tron refrains from killing the human. At the end of the movie, Tron sacrifices himself to save the humans from being killed:

Tron - I fight for the UsersYouTube – Tron Realizes He Fights for the Users

The reason I’m fascinated by Tron’s loyalty to the users is that my supply chain should have equal loyalty to the customers. In all our efforts to fight waste and inefficiencies, we should boldly declare, like Tron, “I Fight for the Customers.” For some reason, however, I often ignore or stop paying attention to the voice of the customer and find myself fighting against, instead of for, the customer.

Voice of the Customer and Putting Away Christmas Decorations

A poignant example of ignoring the voice of the customer happened recently while I was putting away my home’s Christmas decorations. The Christmas lights are especially time-consuming to neatly organize, so I instead gathered everything into a giant ball and stuffed it into a plastic bin. I just wanted to get done as quickly as possible, so I told myself,” I’ll deal with untangling this mess next year.”

However, this is exactly what a good supply chain shouldn’t do. I’m creating a local optimum (putting away my decorations as quickly as possible) that will cause pain to my customer (in this case, me in 11 months). Since I am my own customer, I know the voice of the customer quite well. I remember untangling the lights just weeks before, and I know exactly what I should do to please the customer. I don’t though. Since it’s a hard task and it pays off now to just throw everything into a box, I do the minimum to get the job done when I could increase customer satisfaction.

“I Fight for the Customer”

This same type of local optimization occurs every day along the supply chain. As we get busy or deadlines get scrunched, we naturally reduce the effort we put into pleasing our customers. Whether it’s our internal customers or the end consumer, it’s easy to forget that how we stack a pallet or design a product can negatively affect our customer down the line.

Each day, I need to repeat “I Fight for the Customer” throughout process improvement and Kaizen efforts. As you and I battle inefficiencies and reduce waste, we should have the same natural instinct to stop what we’re doing when it threatens customer satisfaction. For example, I can reduce airspace in packaging boxes, but as soon as my product’s quality is compromised from being too tightly packaged, that’s the blood that should force me to rethink my initiative.

The Empty Chair at Amazon.com

In the early days of Amanzon.com, Jeff Bezos, CEO and customer service champion, reserved an empty chair at all important meetings. He told his team that the chair was reserved for the most important person in the company – the customer. He asked everyone to imagine the customer was sitting there and to keep her in mind in throughout all their decisions. Later, Bezos hired someone to sit in the chair and passionately represent the voice of the customer. This practice helped to guard Amazon against any initiatives that didn’t help its users, and kept everyone’s thoughts centered on who kept them in business.

How Can I Better Fight for the Customer?

What ways can you better proclaim “I Fight for the Customer” in your supply chain? Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do I have adequate channels that bring the voice of the customer to me?
  • Do I frequently review how process changes affect the customer?
  • Do I address both the external and internal customer experience in all major meetings?
  • How can everyone in my organization feel closer to our customers?
  • How can I prioritize initiatives more closely to fit customer needs?
  • How can I better share my voice, as well as my customers’ voices, with my vendors?

By bringing the customer back into focus with your daily efforts, your organization can better solve the needs of those that keep you in business. Building the resolve to fight for the users of your product and services will result in a more loyal and pleased customer base.

Tired of Making Resolutions that Never Resolve? Three Ways to Change Today

A new year means new goals. Unfortunately for me, it also usually means a bunch of broken resolutions just a couple weeks later. No matter how motivated I am to make a change, life gets busy and in the way, and I forget my goals. Even our departmental ambitions that we spent hours discussing quickly turn into nothing more than a poster on the wall.

Stuck on Goals

That was true until I tried these three methods that changed how I approach goals. Suddenly, I was making real progress on long-term priorities despite the fires that popped up. Using these strategies in your own goal planning can bring real change and results that so often eluded me.

Seinfeld to the Rescue – Don’t Break the Chain

JerryseinfeldBack when Jerry Seinfeld was on the road doing standup each night, a fellow admiring comic asked him how he was able to write so many jokes. Jerry responded that he put a giant calendar on a wall in his home. Each day he spent time writing, he would put a giant ‘X’ in for that day on the calendar. After a few days, he’d have a chain of ‘X’s. He’d be proud of that chain, and Jerry would do everything he could to not “break the chain.”

You can easily implement this at home or at work. Just print out a calendar, decide on what qualifies as giving yourself an ‘X’, and then post that calendar in a place where you and others can easily see it. This method has helped me hold morning huddles with my team even when we’re busy, update dashboards even though the task is time-intensive, and go to the gym even though it’s freezing cold outside.

Links to Learn More:

Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret

How Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret Fixed My Procrastination Problem

Habit Streak Plan Puts Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret on Android – a free Android app that helps you not break the chain

Do More by Focusing on Daily 3+2 Priorities

The 3+2 Daily PlannerEach morning, I used to list everything I was planning to get done that day. My list would usually be 20 or 30 lines long – and I wouldn’t even get close to working on half of the items. Worse still, I often needed to follow up on the ten things I had worked on over the next several days to actually get the results I needed. In trying to do everything, I wasn’t getting nearly enough done over the long run, even though I felt good checking off so many boxes on my daily To Do list. That’s when an article on 3+2 saved me.

Being honest with myself, I realized that I can only really accomplish about three big tasks and two small tasks in a normal workday. By focusing on the top five priorities and really nailing them in one day, I could then take on five more tomorrow. Even though I was marking off fewer checkboxes throughout the day, I had a much longer list of accomplishments at the end of the week. Holding myself accountable to just those three big and two small tasks let me actually make progress on my goals and more quickly improve our company’s operations.

Links to Learn More

Take a More Realistic Approach to Your To-Do List with the 3 + 2 Rule

Unite and Align Your Team with a Morning Huddle – The 3+2 Rule at Work

Craft Your Average Perfect Day

What's your Average Perfect Day?I have set many ambitious goals that I’ve quickly forgotten. Somehow, what I do each day just doesn’t translate to progress on those objectives. However, I have also learned that some of my goals don’t quite fit with what I actually want to accomplish each day. So to make and keep better goals, I like to use the Average Perfect Day method.

What is your perfect day? Not a vacation or winning the lottery, but a realistic perfect day that could potentially repeat itself again and again. Would you hit the gym in the morning? Meet with your team in the morning? Spend an hour on a long-term goal for the company? Recognize the achievements of others? Write a process or automate a report?

Mapping out a template of what my average perfect day looks like quickly helps me realize how I can make small changes to reach that ideal schedule. It also helps me plan goals in a concrete manner, which means I can make more progress on them.

Link to Learn More

One of the Best Goal Setting Exercises

Don’t Be Stupid. Use a Checklist.

As a new father, I can feel the lack of sleep finally catching up with me – especially in the mornings. Leaving my house for work became quite frustrating as I started forgetting important items. On Monday, I forgot to bring my lunch with me. On Tuesday, I forgot my smoothie that was to be my breakfast. Wednesday, my keys; Thursday, my laptop. Fortunately, I was able to go back for my keys and laptop before I drove away from my home, but it was unnerving that I had become so forgetful.
Morning Checklist Post-it
By Thursday night, I was desperate for a solution to my morning forgetfulness. So, to combat the problem, I made a checklist. I took a post-it note and listed the items that I wanted to be sure to bring with me each morning to work. Here’s my list:

  • Phone
  • Keys
  • Wallet
  • Backpack
  • Laptop (in backpack)
  • Lunch
  • Breakfast Drink

I put this post-it checklist right at eye level on my front door. The next day, I arrived at work without anything missing. The entire next week as well – no forgotten items. My checklist solved my problem quickly, easily, and cheaply.

Checklists Prevent Deviations and Errors

This experience reminded me of the power of checklists. Checking boxes helps us follow standard procedure. Most deviations from a standard process are a result of forgetfulness or trying to be too efficient (being too busy or lazy). Seeing each step clearly spelled out in a simple list eliminates forgetfulness and adds accountability to complete each step.

Checklists Save Lives and Money

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Switch, talk about just how powerful checklists can be. When Michigan intensive care units (ICUs) created a five-step checklist for how to insert an IV, occurrences of infected lines disappeared. The checklist saved the hospitals an estimated $175 million as well as 1,500 lives. More surprising is how simple the checklist was. Step one, wash hands before inserting IV; Step two, clean patient’s skin with antiseptic. The list wasn’t new science, it just helped the doctors and nurses remember each step and slow down to perform them all.

So how can I use the power of checklists in my supply chain? Our company’s operations have many small procedures that capture and track data as our inventory flows through our processes. Here are just a few processes that have benefited from a checklist:

  • Receiving product – a checklist makes sure all the information for each inventory receipt is correctly recorded in our accounting system
  • Quarterly Vendor Scorecard Reviews – a checklist helps ensure we analyze each vendor on every aspect important to our company, such as communication and lead time, not just price
  • Sales and Operations Process – a checklist keeps our forecasts more accurate as it asks us to review and check off each significant customer each month
  • Customer Packaging and Routing Requirements – checklists for key customers help our warehouse team prepare shipments to each customer’s specific requirements to avoid fines and chargebacks
  • Legal Compliance Records – a checklist helps us create and keep all the necessary legal paperwork necessary for a future compliance audit

Ideally, the checklist prints automatically as the process begins. For example, the customer requirement checklist prints on the pick sheet. When the checklist cannot be automatically pirnted, we print a stack of half-page or one-page checklists in advance that can easily be stapled to the front of a paperwork packet. The convenience of having the checklist easily attached helps ensure it gets used.

Checklist Implementation – Overcoming Barriers and Resistance

One major reason checklists aren’t used more frequently is that the process seems too basic to require one. Remembering to bring everything with me to work is an easy process, and most people probably can handle it just fine without a checklist. Had someone else mandated I follow a checklist each morning, I might have become offended that my competence was in question. However, as resistant as I may be, I can’t deny that my morning checklist helps me avoid errors. Thus, I have learned to see the value of checklists for standard work. Sharing stories of checklist successes, such as at the Michigan ICUs, can help others also realize the value of checklist. Involving those using the checklist in their creation, just as I wrote my own, can get their buy in.

The other primary cause of checklist scarcity is the fact that we don’t often review processes that have been in place for some time. Even though writing out my morning checklist only took 20 seconds, nothing motivated me to make it until I forgot something four days in a row. The same is true with processes at work. Until repeated and significant mistakes occur, I likely won’t spend time building a checklist for a process. However, spending a little time now can help avoid larger issues in the future.

To move myself from a reactive to a proactive approach, I have scheduled 15 minutes each week during a less-busy time of day to review a process. If I can create one useful checklist each week, I’ll be well on my way to better discipline and fewer process errors.

To read even more about the power of checklists, check out Chip and Dan Heath’s Fast Company article Heroic Checklist. I also highly recommend their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, which talks more about checklists in pages 220-224.