Making Problems Visible

Making Problems Visible is one of the cornerstones of Lean. Sometimes data or discussion can make a problem visible and no one is hurt. But often, making a problem visible stings us or our co-workers—even when we all know the problem is the process, not the person. And when problems surface it is generally easier to ignore them, put a positive spin on them, or make vague “we ought to look into that” sounds without really digging into the problem, its root causes, and countermeasures.

At a recent King County “Lean for Lunch” (an open roundtable conversation among County employees about Lean topics) several employees discussed the challenges inherent in making problems visible, reasons why making problems visible is important, and ways to ease the pain of making problems visible.

Meet the Usual Suspects of Problem Avoidance

The group discussed some of the reasons why making problems visible can be difficult:

  • Embarrassment: I don’t want to put that information up because I’m afraid I’d embarrass someone.
  • Wishful Thinking: Ignore the problem; focus on the part that makes you happy.
  • Selling: Using data to say, “Aren’t we doing a lovely job?” rather than identifying priorities and challenges.
  • Buck Passing: Leave it to the person who someday replaces you.
  • Not My Problem: I don’t have time to do it and no one has asked for it. So I’d look silly for raising the issue because I couldn’t solve it.

So What Can Be Done?

There aren’t easy solutions, everyone agreed. Making Problems Visible is a tenet of Lean precisely because it doesn’t come naturally. We must work ourselves into the habits and continual practice of making problems visible.

But the group did have some good discussions about ways to kickstart Making Problems Visible discussions. It goes without saying that “no negative consequences for making a problem visible” is imperative.

  • Just Do It (to coin a phrase): Put some data up there. Identify what could work better or causes pain.
  • Help Me: “Frame it around asking others for assistance.” Build a culture based on how we can help each other.
  • Opportunity to Change the System: “People get so conditioned to the broken system that it feels like mission impossible. This is a real opportunity to for them to envision what would that target look like.”

Why It Is Important

It might seem that solving problems is its own reward—and it is—but that frame of reference may also obscure other good reasons to make problems visible even if it doesn’t lead to a bevy of solutions.

  • Inertia: “Not making problems visible builds up inertia. It embeds a culture of walking by your problems.“
  • Priorities: Making problems visible lets people know what is important because otherwise, no one knows that this is important. “This problem can’t be that important because no one acts like it is.”
  • Making Problem Solvers: “Another reason to make problems visible is to develop better problem solvers. Less attention gets paid to this than to solving problems, but it is as important.”

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