Inherently, in Lean problem solving is the heart of what we do. Murphy’s law is an adage that broadly states: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." It is therefore inevitable that businesses must solve problems. Organizations cannot improve unless they consistently seek out and solve their problems. But are your focused on the right thing.
One element of the Toyota Production System that has not gained much traction is the practice of addressing problems with countermeasures instead of solutions. It is misunderstood by many people that the tools will lead to the development of a solution to the root cause of a problem. Organizations are highly complex systems and it is naive to think that any of the problems they face result from a single root cause or can be resolved by a single solution.
When all of the factors and interactions that can influence work are understood, it becomes clear that the best we can do is attack problems by addressing as many of the perceived causes as possible with the idea that we may never permanently fix the issue. Because of this, remaining competitive requires continually developing and implementing measures to improve processes and accept the fact that some of the problems the organization faces may never completely disappear.
Within Lean, virtually every action, tool, or system is considered a countermeasure rather than a solution in an effort to prevent the mindset that changes are, in any way, permanent resolutions to problems. Although some action may, in fact, be permanent solutions to a problem, acting in this way can lead to static thinking and interfere with the development of better methods in the future.
This is a difficult concept for many to accept because of the importance our culture places on solving problems. Countermeasures can, at first glance, appear to be nothing more than temporary fixes to problems rather than permanent solutions – which is counter to what organizations are trying to achieve with Lean. In reality though, it is just the opposite, because a solutions thinking mindset can give a false sense of security that a particular problem has, in fact, been eliminated. This can be very dangerous down the road if a problem that the team thinks it resolved returns.
This is not to say that a countermeasure approach focuses on symptoms of a problem rather than the root causes. The tools and methods associated with an effective kaizen process help a team get down to the root causes of a problem. The difference with this line of thinking, however, is the concept that there are several potential root causes to any problem and that actions taken to address a problem are based on what is known today with whatever information is currently available. As the environment changes, the problem can reappear as a result of new or different interactions that were not known at the time it was last studied. Although the initial countermeasures were valuable to the company, the team needs to continue its efforts to assure performance remains stable or continues to improve.
Rarely is there a silver bullet in Lean when improving processes. That is why in the Lean language we do not like to use the term “solutions,” implying fixed and done. In the Lean vocabulary, we prefer “countermeasures,” which must be implemented with a good PDCA cycle.