Problem Definition for Beginners

Back in 2006/7 I worked for Goodrich Aerospace as Group Continuous Improvement Manager, within my team I had a gentleman named Tim Holmes. Now Tim is one of those gentleman once met never forgotten, all for good reasons. His passion, intellect is second to none.

We had done a presentation on Standard Work to the Senior Leadership team and after the meeting Tim, Rob (Quality Manager) and myself got to talking. We knew Tim was a poet so we tasked him with creating a poem on Problem Definition something we could use in all of the conference rooms, training rooms, etc.

This was the result. Something I use regularly.

Problem Definition for Beginners

They say a well-defined problem is half way solved,
So if I want to fix an issue I get the right tool involved.
If I’ve got a problem that isn’t well defined
With lots of complex issues that keep racing round my mind
Or when there’s loads of data but I cannot find the proof
I know that there’s a solution there, but I just can’t see the truth.
Whenever I’m finding it difficult to focus my attention,
Or if I need help to understand and gain some comprehension,
I reach for a tool that’s simple to use and helps avoid contention
I break the problem into easy steps and ask myself 6 questions.
What precisely is it that’s wrong? is the first thing you should ask
I try to be exact here as it helps me in my task.
Where is the next one, as in where was it found?
This will help locate the issue and fix it to the ground.
Next up its When – as in what time of day,
I’ll also add the month & year to help me on my way.
Who is question number four, I need to know who found it?
Then I’ll know when I ‘go look see’ or need to talk around it.
The next question is five and the detail is Which? by way of demonstration
I’d like a specific requirement here, ideally a specification
Now finally I ask a How… to quantify the problem.
How many are wrong? Or even How was it found? And now I’m ready solve em.
This process will lend itself to any problem raised,
It will help us relieve that awful stress from out of our days.
‘Cause when you’ve got the all details, once your problems’ defined.
The picture should be much more clear, the solutions more easy to find;
Just work though the detail use logic… then pause,
For sooner or later you’ll find the root cause.
You see the answers to our troubles are never beyond our cognition,
They’re halfway over a little hill called Problem Definition

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Leadership Standard Work: Strengthening the Core of Manufacturing Management

Effective leadership is paramount in steering organisations toward success. Leadership Standard Work (LSW) represents a transformative approach that embeds discipline, visibility, and accountability into the daily routines of leaders at all levels. At its core, LSW is a systematic, documented set of behaviours and activities that are fundamental to driving performance improvement and organisational success. Let’s delve deeper into this concept and how it can be actualised in your manufacturing environment.

The Pillars of Leadership Standard Work

Leadership Standard Work revolves around several key behaviours that align with the fundamental lean principles of continuous improvement and respect for people. These include:

  1. Go and See (Gemba): Regular, scheduled visits to the place where work happens to observe processes and engage with frontline workers.
  2. Ask Why: Applying the five-whys technique to uncover the root cause of issues, thus fostering a culture of problem-solving.
  3. Show Respect: Creating an environment in which every team member feels valued and their input is considered critical for continuous improvement.

Standard Work vs. Leadership Standard Work

Standard Work and Leadership Standard Work are twin pillars in high-functioning manufacturing environments, but they cater to different yet complementary aspects of operational excellence. To understand the distinction and the interplay between the two, let’s expand and explore.

Standard Work: The Bedrock of Consistent Quality

Standard Work is a detailed outline of the optimal current method for performing a particular task or process. It encompasses the best practices identified through continuous improvement efforts and is designed for workers at the operational level to ensure consistency and efficiency. Essentially, it’s the “what” and “how” of the daily tasks:

  • Documented Processes: Clear, concise instructions for performing a task that anyone in the role can follow for consistency.
  • Time Elements: Standard time taken for each task helps in scheduling and balancing workloads in a lean manufacturing system.
  • Sequence of Operations: An optimised sequence for carrying out tasks to reduce waste and ensure efficiency.
  • Quality Checkpoints: Built-in quality inspection points within the workflow to ensure defects are caught and corrected early.
  • Tools and Materials: Identifying and arranging necessary tools and materials to minimise movement and waiting times.

Standard Work is the baseline framework from which continuous improvements are identified and applied. It creates an environment where output quality becomes predictable, and processes become more transparent and efficient. As changes are made through kaizen (continuous improvement) activities, Standard Work documents are updated to reflect the new best practices.

Leadership Standard Work: Enhancing Management Effectiveness

In contrast, Leadership Standard Work turns the spotlight onto the roles of leaders and managers within an organisation. It pertains to the “who,” “when,” and “why” – focusing on leadership behaviours and activities that ensure the Standard Work and all other processes are effective, sustainable, and continuously improving.

  • Routine for Leaders: It includes scheduled checks and observations, regular meetings, and audits ensuring that operations are running according to the documented Standard Work.
  • Performance Monitoring: Involves reviewing key performance indicators (KPIs) to ensure that targets are met, and progress is made toward strategic goals.
  • Problem Escalation: Leaders address issues that frontline employees cannot resolve on their own, bringing a systemic approach to solving workflow interruptions.
  • Mentorship and Development: LSW emphasises developing staff; leaders schedule time to coach and mentor employees, reinforcing a culture of learning and improvement.
  • Change Management: Leaders are tasked with managing and guiding change within the organisation, ensuring that new practices are smoothly integrated and accepted.

LSW provides a blueprint for leaders to follow that ensures they are supporting the Standard Work done at all levels. By managing their time around core leadership tasks and creating a routine aligned with operational processes and goals, leaders ensure that they are not only providing direction but are also supporting and enabling their teams.

Symbiosis and Synergy

Both Standard Work and Leadership Standard Work are vital to sustaining lean manufacturing methodologies. While Standard Work prescribes “the way work is done,” LSW ensures “the way work is led.” In practice, one cannot be successful without the other. Standard Work without supportive Leadership Standard Work may lead to drifts in practice and gradual decline in outcomes as frontline employees may not feel supported or held accountable to maintain improvements. Conversely, Leadership Standard Work without solid Standard Work lacks the baseline consistency required for meaningful leadership activities, leading to disorganised efforts and suboptimal resource allocation.

The synergy between the two establishes a robust system where process efficiency is maintained and continuously improved upon, and where organisational goals are met with consistency through engaged leadership. Leaders reinforce the Standard Work by verifying its application and encouraging continuous improvement, while frontline workers carry out the carefully designed Standard Work, knowing that their efforts are supported and that there’s a framework for escalating and resolving issues. This creates a dynamic loop of performance and productivity that underpins a culture of excellence.

Implementing Leadership Standard Work

To effectively implement LSW, leaders must first understand their roles and establish a set of activities that align with organisational goals. For example:

  • For a Team Leader or Supervisor:
    • Starting the shift with a brief team huddle to discuss the agenda, safety topics, and performance metrics.
    • Routine checks for adherence to 5S standards and progress on action items.
    • Direct, on-the-floor coaching, and problem-solving sessions with team members.
  • For a Senior Manager or General Manager:
    • Weekly or bi-weekly Gemba walks to maintain firsthand knowledge of operations and employee concerns.
    • Participation in cross-departmental meetings to ensure alignment on strategic objectives.
    • Reviewing KPIs and ensuring that audit protocols are being followed to maintain high standards of quality and safety.

Each level of leadership standard work varies in scope and frequency, but the underlying principles remain the same.

Leadership Standard Work Audit

The Impacts of Effective Leadership Standard Work

By embracing LSW, manufacturing organisations can expect several key benefits:

  • Problem-Solving: Frontline associates, empowered to raise issues, drive a culture of immediate problem-solving rather than reactive fire-fighting.
  • Continuous Improvement: Regular practice of LSW ensures that improvement becomes habitual, not just a one-off event.
  • Developing Leaders: Provides a framework for nurturing future leaders by exposing them to strategic thinking and decision-making processes.
  • Performance Gains: Continuous focus on goals and metrics tends to accelerate performance improvements.
  • Team Culture: Promotes a sense of ownership at all levels, leading to stronger team bonding and collaboration.

Case Studies and Evidence

The practice of LSW isn’t theoretical; it has been successfully integrated into numerous organisations. As we implemented and embedded this within Unipart in the late 90’s early 20’s it highlighted its effectiveness. LSW was introduced across the organisational hierarchy, from team leaders to the managing director, driving substantive improvements and embedding a proactive and positive culture. Just one of the many implementations we have done throughout the years since.

The Leadership Pyramid

Visualising LSW through a leadership pyramid can provide clarity on the distribution of responsibilities and activities at all levels. It emphasises the importance of foundation work by team leaders, the managerial oversight, and strategic vision at the upper tiers of the pyramid.


Leadership Standard Work is the engine that propels the continuous improvement vehicle forward. It provides predictability, structure, and a means by which leaders can methodically contribute to the organisation’s overall well-being while developing their teams. In embracing LSW, manufacturing organisations are not merely investing in a set of tasks; they are nurturing a culture of excellence, responsibility, and innovation that echoes through every layer of the company’s fabric.

For manufacturing leaders seeking sustainable improvement and cohesive teams, leadership standard work isn’t a choice—it’s an essential strategy in the modern manufacturing playbook.

If you need support or want to know more about Leadership Standard Work please do contact us

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One of the Least used Tools – Standardised Work

Standardised Work is one of the most powerful but least used tools within business, yet it is one of the foundations to Lean Manufacturing

From my experience “without standards we do not have continuous improvement only chaos”.

The declarations I have heard, “we don’t make cars”, “You see, we are different”, “We’re unique….this isn’t an assembly line!

My response to such statements is “everyone works a process that process can either be destroying or creating value added for the customer, which would you rather it be. Whether you’re building cars or delivering life-saving patient care, it takes a sequence of highly coordinated tasks and processes to deliver the end result. When this sequence of tasks is standardised, you’re on your way to fundamentally improving and eliminating significant sources of waste.

Standardised work is the simple understanding that every task that can be repeated requires a written instruction of the most efficient and effective way to complete it to the highest quality Standard. We then use the selected standard work process each time the task is performed ensuring that the same results are achieved, in the same amount of time, regardless of who completes the task.

Now, we must understand here that the first step is to document what the current best practice is, this may be not be delivering the outcome you require currently, but without first understanding, how will you control any changes and what improvements have had what effect? We can’t, it would be guess work!

Key Elements of Standard Work

  • TAKT
  • Process Capacity Table
  • Work Combination Table
  • Work Layout
  • Standard Operating Procedure

Standard Work Documents

Takt Time – “Takt” is a German word which refers to the pace or beat of a musical composition, the metronome. The calculation of Takt time gives us the rate of production for meeting customer demand

Work sequence – “The time for an employee to do a prescribed task and return to his original stance.” – Taiichi Ohno
Standard inventory – In manufacturing this refers to parts, but in other sectors it can refer to applications, data inputs or other resources necessary to perform the job.

Bear in mind the following

Involve employees in the process – they are the ones who determine the best practice for each task. This also helps ensure engagement and ultimately adherence to the standard work.

Focus on the details – it must be in-depth to be useful in reducing variation. No detail should be omitted. Even the little nuances need to be understood, these are improvements that can be engineered out. (I can remember a process I worked with where the Associate had to lean on one part for the other part to fit, a stack up of tolerances had occurred. This knack had to be written in the standard work until we could engineer it out, imagine the amount of lost time/production if others weren’t aware of this)

Use visuals – Images, photographs, diagrams and examples will help bring your standard work definition to life and increase the likelihood of consistent compliance. A picture is worth a 1000 words.

Make it accessible – The documentation must be accessible at the time and place that the work is to be performed.

Innovate – While you don’t want employees deviating from the standard work process, there must be a method to give consideration to changes when new conditions or new ideas warrant revision. A governance process will increase the likelihood that changes will be analysed and approved rather than being implemented ad-hoc.


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Less Can be More in Report Writing – telling the Story Using an A3 Report.

Some contacts asking about A3 Problem Solving, I thought I would do a quick overview.

Problem solving is about thinking, but writing things down can help thinking as well.

Using the A3 process we can document key information and decisions each step of the way which can then be shared with others, to get input, and make modifications by using that input.

Why A3? Originally it was because much of the communication across Toyota (the various sites and nations) was by fax, and this was the largest size paper that could fit in a fax machine. (Amazing how some things materialise)

A3 Problem Solving Template

The key fundamental about A3 reports is not the format or the finesse with which you fill in the different sections which fancy drawings, charts etc. It’s the COMMUNICATION process. The A3 is fundamental to the process of problem solving and decision-making. It allows the most critical of information to be shared with your business or businesses for others to evaluate on the thought processes used and as a means for requesting support and advice, which in turn aligns everyone in the organisation on how the A3 will move forward.

The above image is a typical layout (not set in stone though, as previously mentioned the format is not the point), but it highlights the different stages and guidelines for completion.

For anyone interested contact me and I’ll send the guide and some examples in PowerPoint format. My personal opinion is use paper and pencil for a start.

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