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The Urgent Trumps the Important

Posted by admin on July 27, 2015

The phrase in the headline is a quote a colleague uses to point out that many important issue need to be addressed in a manufacturing environment but don’t get attention because urgent issues take all the oxygen out of the room.  We think about this when we see the problems our client’s employees choose to tackle in our training sessions.  As we’ve noted in previous blogs, an important part of our training sessions is that each participant comes to the session with a real problem they are facing on the job.  This allows them to practice the process they are learning on an actual problem in the plant.  They often resolve the problem or make considerable progress on resolution before the session ends.

Sometimes a participant brings something that is not really a problem at all, but it is a decision that needs to be made.  Often, this is posed as “I have a problem. I have a decision to make.”  These are two different things.  A problem is a deviation from what is expected to occur and a decision is a choice from a number of alternatives to best meet specific objectives.  We apply very different approaches to solving a problem from making a decision.

We see all types of problems, from what may seem to be trivial to the recurring problem that shuts down production on a regular basis.  Obviously the latter is a major concern and gets a lot of attention from management because it is causing real headaches in terms of product quality and meeting productivity goals.  Often these problems have been lingering and many attempts to solve them have resulted in fixes to alleviate the symptoms that wind up masking the true cause of the problem.  We spend a great deal of time with the training session participants trying to peel back these layers of fixes to identify what is really causing the problem.

The seeming trivial problem may actually be bigger than originally thought.  We are reminded of a session participant who was puzzled about why his machine seemed to cut a piece to random lengths.  He didn’t worry about it because the piece was ground to the exact length needed for the product in the next step of the production process. This was a greenfield site and in the session he identified that a stop on the cutting machine had never been tightened at the correct length. No big deal, right?  Well not exactly.  The plant had six of these machines and none of the stops had been set correctly.  They calculated that it cost about $600,000 a year in scrap costs and additional time in the production process.  So something that seemed trivial was actually a real problem with real cost implications.

So in your everyday work, how do you decide which problems to tackle first?  Clearly, there are the urgent problems that need to be addressed, such as those causing a line shut down or that are causing considerable quality problems.  They need to be handled right now, keeping a focus on the root cause, not just fixing the symptoms.

But what about the lingering problems?  Sometimes companies fail to capture the true costs of these problems because they flare up and band-aide fixes are applied and no one thinks about it until the problem reoccurs weeks or months later.  Or they could be like our machine operator mentions above who simply asked the question “Why?”.  By the time someone decides to dig a little deeper (sometimes in our training session) the company has suffered considerable cost in lost product, additional cost and possibly dissatisfied customers in what amounts to a slow bleed.

So, yes, you have to move quickly on the urgent problems but don’t forget to take on those important problems that gain little attention because no one is measuring the cumulative cost.