Sunday, November 17, 2013

Making Problems Visible Is More Difficult Than It Sounds

One of the many elements of lean that is conceptually very simple but difficult to put into practice is the need to make problems visible.  Although highlighting problems so they can be addressed makes sense, there is often a reluctance resulting from fear that doing so can damage one's career.  In organizations with highly competitive cultures, for example, openly discussing problems can make a person appear incompetent and ineffective. Even without open competition, organizations that tend to promote those who hide problems by putting a positive spin on poor performance are unconsciously cementing a behavior that it is not okay to openly discuss problems.

It is perfectly normal for people to want to show that processes are running smoothly and things are under control.  Because of this, it is up to the company's leaders to instill the idea that highlighting problems is not only acceptable but expected within the organization.  This means that there should never be negative consequences for making a problem visible.  On the contrary, it should be made clear to everyone that hiding problems or failing to take action to address them is an unacceptable behavior.

Two areas where it is important to make problems visible are dashboards and meetings.


The objective of a dashboard for an area or process is to clearly and objectively show the gaps between expected performance and actual results.  Hiding the gaps or continually putting a positive spin on how things are going misses the opportunity to align team members on what's important so the problems can be addressed.

Posting charts that track what's critical for an area keep people focused on how a process is expected to perform and, the more sensitive the chart, the more quickly action can be taken when a gap occurs.

It is important to note that dashboards become ineffective when too much data is displayed. Think how difficult driving would be if your dashboard contained 10 or 12 gages.  The same applies to a dashboard for a work area.  Make it simple and clearly connected to company or system targets.

It is also critical to keep dashboards simple and easy to maintain. Fight the urge to multi-color, three-dimensional graphs that show too much data.  To purpose of a chart is to highlight performance, not prove how adept someone is at creating graphs.


Many companies waste a lot of time in meetings talking about what is going well.  Performance is reviewed and discussed - sometimes in excruciating depth - even when processes are on-target.  People learn to dread meetings and use the time to catch up on email or the latest headlines on their smart phones.

The more the daily and weekly meetings are focused on the gaps - existing and potential - the more engaged people will be.  The dashboards should drive the meetings and, the better the dashboards, the quicker people can zero in on the gaps and talk about the actions to address them.

When we do this well, we begin to take advantage of the collective knowledge of the team by focusing on improving performance.  If we dance around the real issues by ignoring the gaps and attempting to put a positive spin on how things are going, we miss an opportunity to build teamwork and fail to address the real problems.

The Problems Are There - Why Not Look At Them

Every organization has problems, and a key determinant of success is how well the problems are addressed.  Openly showing the problems is the first step at resolving them.  Getting to this point, however, often requires shifting behavior to make it okay - even expected - to look for the gaps.