Monday, 27 June 2016 11:47

Lean Problem Solving

Written by

luehr lean problem solving


For just a moment I would like you to imagine a world where finding problems is considered a good thing. I know this may sound strange, but it is exactly the behavior that is encouraged by companies that have adopted lean thinking.

The problem with most of us is that we have been conditioned over the years to believe that problems found in our production systems are a bad thing, therefore we don’t want to deal with them so we will do whatever we can to quickly sweep problems under the rug. Let me be clear here. The production problems themselves are inherently bad, it is the discovery of the problems that is a good thing. After all you can’t fix it unless you know it’s broke, right?


The “problem solving culture” is at the very core of great companies such as Toyota where a great deal of time and effort is spent to instill and reward the behaviors of exposing and solving problems every moment of every day. One of the many methods Toyota uses as a problem solving tool is what they call the Andon. Any moment when a critical problem is found on the assembly line at Toyota, any employee can pull what they call the “Andon Cord” and the entire assembly line will screech to a halt. A team of people will immediately scramble to the location of the discovered problem like they had just discovered a vein of gold or diamonds and begin the work of problem solving. It is amazing how much effort they put into problem solving to ensure that beginning from that crucial moment of discovery, Toyota will be a leaner and more enjoyable place to work. If only all of us in the collision repair industry could have this positive attitude towards dealing with problems.


Now I know many of my readers may be thinking right about now, how does all this apply to a collision repair business? While you probably won’t be seeing many Andon Cords in body shops, there are actually a lot of things you can learn from the assembly line model as it relates to problem solving. 


The assembly line exposes problems and forces discipline. How do you think it would affect everyone’s behaviors and habits if you were running a shop that lined the cars up bumper to bumper and you were not allowed to work on the next car in line until the car you are working on is complete? Do you think the estimate would need to be completely accurate and do you think all the correct parts would need to be on hand? You’re darn right! At most shops in this country you would have a mutiny on your hands if you tried this approach despite being the most efficient way to process a repair job! But if you could somehow manage to keep your team from quitting you would see that each problem is exposed so glaringly obvious it would stare you in the face every time the assembly line came to a halt. You would need to identify each problem quickly and then put measures in place so it would never happen again. In this environment, you would very quickly adopt a problem solving culture, because if you didn’t, you would quickly go out of business!


So what do we do instead? We load up the shop with more work than we can efficiently process in order to “mask” the problems and inefficiencies. Technicians feel they need 4, 5, or more vehicles and stalls each in order to survive. As one repair order encounters a problem, they simply move on to the next vehicle and work on it until the problem from the first job is corrected and so on. The problems, usually called “supplements” are seen as a normal part of the business, so little or no attempt is made to permanently solve the problem. I believe Einstein called this “insanity?” The typical American shop turning around $200,000 a month will have a WIP Count (work in process) of between 40 and 45 repair jobs on the property on average in order to meet its sales goal. This is highly inefficient and causes cycle time to hover at or above 10 days and drives costs and chaos to be much higher than needed.


The efficient lean shop that has been on a journey of problem solving for a while can produce the same $200,000 while maintaining a WIP Count of only 20 cars or less and produce the repair jobs at a lower cost with a cycle time of only 5-6 days!


The best of the best shops put problem solving at the top of their priority list. You too can begin to expose problems if you put your mind to it. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Hold weekly or month “Continuous Improvement” meeting to discuss problems and solutions with the entire staff.
  • Hold quick problem solving team meetings whenever an opportunity arises. (Like the Andon)
  • Keep a journal in the assembly department to track problems as they occur. Use this information to make continuous improvements.
  • Create safety with the team. Praise people for helping to expose problems. Discourage people from covering up problems. Remember, it’s okay to make mistakes, just don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over!
  • Training and auditing. Quite often additional training will help in problem areas of the business. Once people are trained, occasional audits are a good idea to make sure processes are being followed.
  • This may not work for every shop configuration, but I like to set up my shops with the vehicle damage facing the center aisle whenever possible in order to visually catch problems during production. As opposed to being hidden against the technicians wall and massive tool box.