Practical rules to make problems visible while avoiding drawbacks

Many leaders recognize that making problems visible is important practice in successful organizations. It is a core kaizen (continuous improvement) principle practiced by companies such as Toyota (Post: TIEM tour...), Autoliv and Medtronic (Post: What can we learn...) It is one of the 14 Toyota Way principles identified by Jeff Liker after studying Toyota for several years and it is also included in the Shingo Model as a part of continuous improvement dimension. However, most of the efforts to apply this principle fail. I know too many organizations fill of artifacts (e.g. whiteboards, dashboards) of good intentions but lack of understanding how to start making problems visible.

The rational and emotional side of making problems visible
Making problems visible appeals to people's rational and emotional sides or in Aristotle's terms to logos and pathos.

From a rational perspective, problems visibility brings out factual evidence which opens the way for rational argumentation. We can't fix something that we don't "see" or agree as a problem.  In the book "Persuasive Communication", the authors discovered supporting evidence matters the most to influence attitude change when people is highly involved (p.132)

From the emotional side, making problems visible creates a number of emotions within people. In many cases, people feel uncomfortable and thus sets a sense of urgency for action. However, making problems visible can backfire if it is not properly done. It could create perverse behaviors such as defensiveness, blaming or even punishing others. A common reaction when a problem is exposed is to focus on finding someone responsible, "who dropped the ball?", instead of looking at the process (method, machine, material.)

How do we make problems visible and avoid drawbacks?
Here some key rules for making problems visible:
+ Start with agreeing that "making a problem visible" is necessary behavior for your company. Before hanging boards and filling walls with problems within your organization, make sure you are not the only one who believes that making problems visible is important for your company. Discuss about it, answer their questions and work on how it should be done. A very ineffective approach is to force people to agree on your beliefs even if you have good ones.  
Define what a problem is. While this might appear trivial, defining and agreeing upon what constitute a problem is a critical step to make problems visible. A simple way to define a problem is "any condition that do not meet the standard or expected condition." In this way, creating standards is necessary condition to make problems visible and then solving them (see blog about standard work and improvement cycle)     
+ Lead by example: Make your problems visible first. Regardless if you lead a small department or the whole organization, start with you. Make your direct area of control the example or "model" of putting in practice the principle. If you are a Lean coach or manager supporting your organization Lean Six Sigma deployment efforts, you must make your problems and activities visible to all. Keep in mind that teaching by example is a key principle on your coaching activities.
Start simple. Making problems visible is a learning process that better starts as simple as possible. Instead of looking for the perfect board or wall, start with a solution that is simple, practical and easy for other to understand. For instance, start with a small or very limited number of problems and information about them. As you and your team gain experience on making problems visible, your solution will change.

+ Align your problems to the overall companies values, goals and targets so you efforts support your organization strategy. A common mistake is to focus on the wrong problems or passing upstream or downstream problems that at the end will affect negatively your organization performance even though it might appear your department or area performs better.
+ Make it a part of a problem solving management process. You won't fix problems by just making them visible. Fixing problems requires purposeful and coordinated efforts by people usually in different areas or functions. So making problems visible must be a part of your problem solving management process. In other words, once problems are made visible, they must be sorted, prioritized, assigned and solved as soon as possible.  
The ultimate goal: develop problem solvers
Making problems visible is about developing people as effective problem solvers not just to solve problems (As shown in the chart above.) The ultimate goal of any lean transformation is to build a culture in which every person in the organization is engaged, capable and focus to remove anything that is not creating value for their customers.It requires to see "making problems visible" as an component of an integral management system and avoid piecemeal implementation of tools.  


  1. Most of the times problems are not visible and its tough to identify them, that is a normal condition. and some times problems are visible and we can see their drawbacks, at this stage we need to collect all the problems and find out solutions to them and make it a culture in the organization to come-up with solutions and not only with the problems. Six Sigma methodology helps in creating effective work culture to avoid drawbacks. find related content on "SixSigmaCentral"

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