Solving a Lean Problem versus a Six Sigma Problem:

Model

I must confess upfront that the title of this post is misleading. Similar to the Spoon Boy in the movie, The Matrix, I will say – There is no Lean problem nor a Six Sigma problem. All these problems are our mental constructs of a perceived phenomenon. A problem statement is a model of the actual phenomenon that we believe is the problem. The problem statement is never the problem! It is a representation of the problem. We form the problem statement based on our vantage point, our mental models and biases. Such a constructed problem statement is thus incomplete and sometimes incorrect. We do not always ask for the problem statement to be reframed from the stakeholder’s viewpoint. A problem statement is an abstraction based on our understanding. Its usefulness lies in the abstraction. A good abstraction ignores and omits unwanted details, while a poor abstraction retains them or worse omits valid details. Our own cognitive background hinders our ability to frame the true nature of the problem. To give a good analogy, a problem statement is like choosing a cake slice. The cake slice represents the cake, however, you picked the slice you wanted, and you still left a large portion of the cake on the table, and nobody wants your slice once you have taken a bite out of it.

When we have to solve a problem, it puts tremendous cognitive stress on us. Our first instinct is to use what we know and what we feel comfortable with. Both Lean and Six Sigma use a structured framework that we feel might suit the purpose. However, depending upon what type of “problem” we are trying to solve, these frameworks may lack the variety they need to “solve” the problem. I have the used the quotation marks on purpose. For example, Six sigma relies on a strong cause-effect relationship, and are quite useful to address a simple or complicated problem. A simple problem is a problem where the cause-effect relationship is obvious, whereas a complicated problem may require an expert’s perspective and experience to analyze and understand the cause-effect relationship. However, when you are dealing with a complex problem, which is non-linear, the cause-effect relationship is not entirely evident, and the use of a hard-structured framework like Six sigma can actually cause more harm than benefit. All human-centered “systems” are complex systems. In fact, some might say that such systems do not even exist. To quote Peter Checkland, In a certain sense, human activity systems do not exist, only perceptions of them exist, perceptions which are associated with specific worldviews.

We all want and ask for simple solutions. However, simple solutions do not work for complex problems. The solutions must match the variety of the problem that is being resolved. This can sometimes be confusing since the complex problems may have some aspects that are ordered which give the illusion of simplicity. Complex problems do not stay static. They evolve with time, and thus we should not assume that the problem we are trying to address still has the same characteristics when they were identified.

How should one go from here to tackle complex problems?

  • Take time to understand the context. In the complex domain, context is the key. We need to take our time and have due diligence to understand the context. We should slow down to feel our way through the landscape in the complex domain. We should break our existing frameworks and create new ones.
  • Embrace diversity. Complex problems require multidisciplinary solutions. We need multiple perspectives and worldviews to improve our general comprehension of the problem. This also calls to challenge our assumptions. We should make our assumptions and agendas as explicit as possible. The different perspective allows for synthesizing a better understanding.
  • Similar to the second suggestion, learn from fields of study different from yours. Learn philosophy. Other fields give you additional variety that might come in handy.
  • Understand that our version of the problem statement is lacking, but still could be useful. It helps us to understand the problem better.
  • There is no one right answer to complex problems. Most solutions are good-enough for now. What worked yesterday may not work today since complex problems are dynamic.
  • Gain consensus and use scaffolding while working on the problem structure. Scaffolding are temporary structures that are removed once the actual construction is complete. Gaining consensus early on helps in aligning everybody.
  • Go to the source to gain a truer understanding. Genchi Genbutsu.
  • Have the stakeholders reframe the problem statement in their own words, and look for contradictions. Allow for further synthesis to resolve contradictions. The tension arising from the contradictions sometimes lead us to improving and refining our mental models.
  • Aim for common good and don’t pursue personal gains while tackling complex problems.
  • Establish communication lines and pay attention to feedback. Allow for local context while interpreting any new information.

Final Words:

I have written similar posts before. I invite the reader to check them out:

Lean, Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints and the Mountain

Herd Structures in ‘The Walking Dead’ – CAS Lessons

A successful framework relies on a mechanism of feedback-induced iteration and keenness to learn. The iteration function is imperative because the problem structure itself is often incomplete and inadequate. We should resist the urge to solve a Six Sigma or a Lean problem. I will finish with a great paraphrased quote from the Systems Thinker, Michael Jackson (not the famous singer):

To deal with a significant problem, you have to analyze and structure it. This means, analyzing and structuring the problem itself, not the system that will solve it. Too often we push the problem into the background because we are in a hurry to proceed to a solution. If you read most texts thoughtfully, you will see that almost everything is about the solution; almost nothing is about the problem.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Lean Lessons:

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