Simple Solutions Yield Simple Results

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

I am constantly amazed that intelligent professionals think that all problems can be resolved by either ignoring them or creating quick-fixes. They do not seem to realize that not all problems, especially those that severely limit too many of our plants, are candidates for simple, technical fixes.

For instance, a client forced to carry far too much finished goods inventory because of the almost infinite variability of its out-of-control production process made an executive decision to holistically resolve the problem. All functional groups, from production planning through materials management, received the executive mandate to develop standard processes that would effectively integrate shutdowns, startups, changeovers and the myriad of other processes that contributed to the variations in, and limited, production.

Even though the executive fully understood the magnitude of his request, those charged with implementing the change did not. They could not grasp the magnitude of the effort required to fully integrate all of the diverse functions that must seamlessly work together to have a stable, effective production operation, especially during transitions such as startups or changeovers. Instead, they decided that a one-day, off-site meeting of a select group of functional group representatives would suffice. “After all, all we need is to tweak the schedule a bit and everything will be all right.” Thoughts about coordinating work-in-process (WIP) to minimize waste and delays; minimizing the number and duration of changeovers; and reducing the overtime and losses associated with startup never even entered their minds.

Even professionals such as change management consultants are not immune from relying on the technical or tools solution to problems. I recently overheard this: “Our job is to give them the tools and show how to use them. It’s not our job to create the desire, that’s up to the client.” If that is true, then where does the desire to change come from? Everyone who knows me will attest to my love of tools—I have a tool for practically everything. But tools are not enough to effect change or to solve a problem. They are simply tools that may, if you choose the right one, help you along the way.

I’m often surprised by people, especially those in the rarified air of the executive suite, who think that they can delegate change or solutions to problems—that the workforce will automatically and enthusiastically embrace and universally adopt anything that is passed down to them. They consider delegation a simple solution. It’s easy to convene a meeting of a select few managers, quickly decide on a solution or path forward, and write a memo telling the workforce what needs to be done.

Problems, regardless of their magnitude or complexity, must be fully understood before deciding how they should be evaluated and resolved. Even an apparently simple problem can be the result of hidden and potentially serious issues that, if ignored, can lead to catastrophic problems. Certainly complex issues, such as the integration of the production operation or changing plant culture, demand more than a quick meeting of a select few managers and a memo outlining a path forward. Too many of the factors that limit performance are the result of a complacent culture and bad habits that have evolved over many years, if not decades. This is also true of the too-common approach to resolving them. We have become conditioned to ignore a problem, hoping it will go away. When finally forced to face a problem, we tend to seek simple solutions and quick-fixes or put Band-Aids on symptoms rather than dive deep and resolve it.

One classic example is the almost universal belief that deficiencies in the maintenance function constitute the primary limiting factor faced by our plants. We point to high maintenance cost, frequent breakdowns, and chronic reliability issues, often exhibited as scrap, downtime and reduced output. Few people stop to verify these assumptions or to investigate the underlying causes of these deficiencies. After all, everyone knows that maintenance is to blame.

The truth is that maintenance contributes no more than 17% of the reliability issues that our plants endure; the other 83% are the result of deficiencies in other functional groups—led by production and purchasing. These deficiencies are often manifested as high maintenance cost. No matter who causes the breakdown or damage, maintenance must perform the repair and absorb the cost. If the historical data is correct, can one solve high maintenance cost, excessive downtime, high scrap, and other problems by improving maintenance? The answer is obviously “no”, but that does not stop thousands of plants from trying.

My father gave me advice on many, many things; two pieces of advice are relevant to this discussion. The first was to fully understand a problem before trying to solve it. As a millwright, he spent his entire life trying to understand how machines work, why they fail and how to effectively repair them. He was a very good trouble-shooter, not a parts-swapper. This is excellent advice for us all: always solve the real problem instead of simply patching the symptoms.

The second was to work smart, not hard. In this context, he advised that one should not over-complicate one’s approach to solving problems, but at the same time one should not ignore hidden complexities. He warned that people tend to gravitate to the two extremes: over-simplify a problem and therefore miss the underlying causes, or over-complicate the solution and fail to reach resolution. Take the time to understand the real problem—dive deep and fully investigate the underlying issues that contribute to the visible symptoms. When, and only when, you fully understand the problem, determine the best approach to resolve it.

One final word of advice: completely solve the problem, not just part of it. Too often our conditioning once again holds us back. To avoid confrontation and perceived non-solvable issues (such as bargaining unit agreements), or to avoid disturbing company policy or the status quo, we avoid implementing a complete solution. If I had a nickel for every time a client said, “Yes, that is absolutely the right thing to do, but you cannot do it here,” I would be a millionaire many times over. You never know whether you can change something until you try.

“The Solution Must Match the Problem"

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,
R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

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