A solution in search of a problem

opportunity-12A consultant spent three hours watching a production line trying to find opportunity. It was a simple quality inspection area where the product flowed in a continuous stream past a number of trained inspectors. The consultant noticed each inspector used a different select / pick / inspect / replace technique and determined there must be a “best practice.” He discussed the finding with his project manager. The manager simply said, “you have a solution in search of a problem. You’ll have more success if you start the other way around.”

This is a problem we sometimes find ourselves in. It’s easy to assume that applying a single best practice technique would improve either quality or productivity before determining that either of those outcomes are correlated to the actual inspection process. In many industries and in many functions, we observe jobs that are done differently by different people. For example, hotel housekeepers have the same outcome (a clean room) but often perform the room cleaning task in a variety of different ways (different order, sequence, cleaning techniques, etc.) Over time we’ve learned that it’s extremely difficult to change this behavior and the gains are relatively small. There are bigger opportunities in the activities that surround the actual cleaning task. This also allows the housekeepers a certain degree of autonomy in what is otherwise a fairly monotonous task.

The opportunity on the production line turned out to have nothing to do with the inspection process. There was no significant difference in either speed or quality of the inspection based on how the inspection was conducted. The overall line throughput (and the corresponding productivity of the inspection team) could be improved by simply increasing the speed of the line.