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lean problem solving

Are You Fixing Problems or Solving Them?

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Have you ever been to Qdoba? It’s a casual dining restaurant featuring Mexican food. The other day I was there and watched a particular employee wipe down tables and chairs after diners left. He had a smile on his face as he did his work. That was until he got to the trashcan.

He wiped the area clean and looked into the trash bin opening and frowned, throwing his towel down. He fiercely opened the cabinet and pulled out the trash can and reached in, pulling out several silver trays – these trays are how the delicious Qdoba food is served.

He slammed the trashcan back into place, threw the dirty trays into his busboy dish tub and marched to the back. A few minutes later, he returned with a sign – handwritten in thick black marker the words, “Don’t Throw Away the Trays”.

How long do you think this solution lasted? I know for one, I personally didn’t throw my tray in the trash. But was it a complete solution? What else could be done to solve the problem, rather than just apply a temporary fix?

Fix Versus Solve

Fixing a problem is usually quite quick. Someone seems a problem and creates a knee jerk reaction to fix it. It takes into consideration a limited scope of information. In the above case, the busboy, while ambitious, used only his perspective to determine the problem and a fix. You likely know that Qdoba is a chain restaurant – did the busboy’s sign fix the problem of disposed trays at any other location? What was this problem causing other franchisors? Was this a problem worth solving?

Solving a problem, on the other hand, looks at the bigger picture to get to the root cause. It takes in more perspectives to find a long-term solution. In fact, when I meet with companies who have a big problem to solve, there is quite a large impact on their bottom line and just a fix won’t do.

Making it Hard to Fail

When we look at creating a solution, we look to create one that is mistake proof. We make the process SO easy, that it is hard to do wrong. We set people up for success. Lean isn’t the only process that does this though – think about some of the solutions you’ve seen in everyday life to help us, and others, not fail:

  • When a waitperson brings a diet soda with two straws to indicate it is diet
  • When we try to start a car when it’s not in park
  • When you can’t push ‘start’ on your microwave unless the door is closed

Solutions don’t need to be complicated, they just need to allow little to no room for error. Companies who think about processes and how to make them foolproof, rather than just letting them happen, are more successful.

Now, Back to Our Story

The above story about Qdoba is something I made up, but it paints an important picture. To solve the problem, they made the opening to the trash can too small for the silver trays to fit. They also placed a label on the shelf above the trash that clearly, and kindly requested that all silver trays be returned to that spot. This made it fool proof. If a patron tried to throw away a tray, it simply couldn’t be done. It would also trigger them to take another action, such as placing it on the clearly marked shelf, or, in the worst-case scenario, setting it back on the table where they ate. Either way, this which allowed the busboy to pick it the trays up, rather than dig through the trash for them. Problem solved!


PBEX, LLC provides a complete review and analysis of the business processes that create efficiency and profitability, and the barriers to them. Contact us today to learn more about lean business management and to schedule your review with a process improvement and automation expert and start solving problems, rather than just fixing them.

Good Leaders Don’t Fix Problems, They Solve Them

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problem solving solution

One morning, while leaving the house for work I noticed that the driver’s side front tire on my car was low and unsafe to drive. So, I turned on the air compressor in the garage and waited for it to fill up with air, then proceeded to go to work. To my surprise the next morning the tire was once again low on air. I followed the same process and went to work.

The following morning, while again waiting for the air compressor to fill with air, I used Lean principles to analyze the situation. That evening I put the air compressor on a timer so I didn’t have to wait the next morning while filling the tire. I improved the process, making it more efficient by saving myself time. Or had I?

Problem Solving with Lean Methodology

There is a quote by Peter Drucker that says:

Nothing is more useless as doing something efficient which should not be done at all

I think that everyone knows what I should have done – figure out why the tire was losing air and get it fixed. It may seem obvious, and yet we do this all the time in business. Instead of spending the time to dive into problem solving, we just keep putting a band-aid on it. We believe it just takes too much time to find the root cause and develop a solution that prevents the problem from resurfacing. So, we keep ourselves stuck in a cycle where the problem keeps happening again and again while we overlook it, or create an inefficient work-around.

How many times would I fill the tire before it became greater than the time it would take to have the tire fixed? Truly it is clear to the objective observer that the solution was temporary. Very temporary.

If you were to ask your employees what their biggest issues in their workplace is, they will likely tell you that it’s the same problems not being dealt with, over, and over, and over again. I could bring up several quotes here, like this definition of insanity, but it comes down to doing what is right, not what is easy.

We as leaders have to provide those we work with the best opportunity for success, and that requires us to not just fix problems, but to solve them so that they never come back.

Don’t improve a process which shouldn’t be done in the first place.

PBEX, LLC can provide training on root cause analysis and problem solving to provide the means to prevent problems from reoccurring. Contact us today to learn more about lean business management and to schedule your review with a process improvement expert.