Back to Basics: Problem Solving at Toyota

As Lean practitioners, we all know how to problem solve – don’t we? This is surely basic Lean stuff? Well, the answer may be that we think we do.

But often, it isn’t done well and in many cases may not fix the actual problem we set out to. In many organisations the problem solving process is rushed, focusing on finding the quickest, easiest solution rather than the one that is the most value adding. Toyota, on the other hand, uses a systematic problem solving process which carefully frames the problem, finds true root cause and uses experiments to test countermeasures to ensure the problem is fixed once and for all. This is a fundamental building block of Toyota’s success and is practised by all employees at all levels.

Toyota’s 8 Step Problem Solving

In a practice-based workshop, Mark Davies, Senior Manager at Toyota Lean Management Centre UK, took us through the 8 step problem solving process :-

1 – Clarify the problem
2 – Breakdown the problem
3 – Set a target
4 – Analyse the root cause
5 – Develop countermeasures
6 – See countermeasures through
7 – Monitor the process and results
8 – Standardise successful processes

Toyota understands that stages 1 – 4 are key to ensuring the right problem is tackled and in the right way. Problems can get messy and convoluted so it’s often confusing to teams as to which specific aspect of a problem to focus on. Step 1 and 2 are important to stratify data, often using Pareto to breakdown the problem. Asking what, when, where and who helps to highlight the top issue to be tackled. It then becomes easier to set SMART targets for improvement. Stage 4 and the identification of root cause is, arguably, the most difficult and the most poorly executed. Here Mark took us through a detailed process to move from the prioritised problem to possible direct causes. The mistakes are to jump in and prescribe possible direct causes to the problems without going to Gemba to confirm the facts. Here direct cause – observed causes of the problem – and root cause – the actual end cause we are trying to identify – are often confused. And then the use of the ‘5 whys’ , a simple tool, which is so effective in drilling down the causality chain to the true root causes.

So going through a case study to practise these steps, how did we do? Well, we didn’t get everything right! And the point here is, if we, as Lean practitioners, aren’t able to problem solve in a systematic way, how can we expect to coach and lead others to do the same?

Back to basics methinks.

An Update: Problem Solving 2021

Bringing this post up to date, we’ve developed the Lean Learning Platform so you can hone your skills. We have a range of materials to help you become self reliant on your lean journey. The complementary Level 1 Practical Problem Solving materials aim to provide knowledge around the subject area.