The Root of Problem-Solving: An Aligned Culture

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The Root of Problem-Solving: An Aligned Culture

Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort for companies that recognize the value of adopting systems that promote quality production standards. These initiatives are the foundation for developing a strong work culture. To help this mission, corporations worldwide have begun implementing problem-solving and performance-evaluation systems designed to promote lean concepts that continually propel improvement.

The Lean System

The Lean concept describes a process that promotes analysis and creative problem-solving throughout a facility. It shifts an organization’s focus to creating value by shortening production cycles, eliminating waste and emphasizing efficiency. Lean involves identifying what adds value to the manufacturing process and removing what doesn’t.

As this system has grown in popularity, groups dedicated to Lean have created templates designed as useful tools to guide organizations during the transition period. One of the first notable Lean templates to rise in popularity in the United States was the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) template. Companies have since taken this format and adjusted it to fit the unique needs of their facilities.

Building off the PDCA template, Ford Motor Company introduced its Eight Disciplines of Problem-Solving template (8D Problem-Solving), which highlighted:

  1. Identifying the problem or need
  2. Understanding the current situation or state
  3. Developing a goal statement
  4. Performing root cause analysis

While this standard held for a period, it became clear that something was missing.

From the PDCA template also came Toyota’s landmark A3 Problem-Solving template. This template was designed for proposals, status updates and problem-solving and includes:

  1. Identifying a problem or need
  2. Understanding the current state or situation
  3. Developing a goal statement and target state
  4. Performing root cause analysis
  5. Determining countermeasures
  6. Creating a countermeasure implementation plan
  7. Checking results to confirm the effect
  8. Updating standard work

With this template, Toyota realized that a problem isn’t actually a problem but an opportunity to improve. But it’s not the template that launches innovative thinking and progress – it’s what’s missing that provides the “secret ingredient”.  

Lean Culture

The secret ingredient to the Lean template, regardless of the company, is Lean culture.

Culture encompasses the personality of a company, and it’s integral to the facility’s overall performance. All companies have a company culture; sometimes it is intentional and sometimes it isn’t, and when culture isn’t planned and supported appropriately, it can have detrimental effects. The aim is to have employees align on goals while making each member feel valued for their unique experiences and knowledge. To promote continuous facility improvement, it’s necessary to integrate Lean values into the company culture.

A successful, sustainable Lean program can only be built on the foundation of a positive working environment. This happens by fostering a desire in employees across multiple disciplines to participate in finding solutions to minimize waste and advance productivity. It’s leadership’s responsibility to set the tone with a strategic vision and mission that go beyond words on a website.

While this can require a shift in mindset, when teams work together to brainstorm and offer different perspectives, companies can see a positive change in employee buy-in, collaboration and goal alignment. A Lean culture supports learning and is driven by the desire to constantly do better. At the end of the day, successful lean strategies are culture change.

The templates described offer processes and checkpoints, but they fall short of “building people”. As Fujio Cho of Toyota Motor Corporation put it, “First we build people, then we build cars.” Without a culture, the Lean templates are just an empty form. To go beyond this form, companies must apply the four pillars of Lean culture:

  1. Cultural Enablers: Lead with humility and respect for each person
  2. Continuous Improvement: Seek perfection, embrace scientific thinking, focus on value
  3. Enterprise Alignment: Think systematically and create consistency and purpose
  4. Results: Focus on the customer and deliver results

Building a Lean Culture

Templates help the team follow a prescribed system, but if you find that they aren’t producing the desired results, it’s time to look at the other factors of a Lean program. While culture is one of the most important concepts, a company must also factor in three other Lean components:

  • Lean Concepts: Eliminating waste to improve information and material flow
  • Lean Planning: Linking together annual and strategic goals with Lean activities to increase the success rate
  • Lean Tools: Techniques used to eliminate identified waste that is preventing a company from achieving the goals it outlined during Lean Planning.

But without a solid Lean culture, none of these other concepts will be appropriately effective. So, how is Lean culture nurtured?

Nurturing Lean culture involves tactfully modifying behaviors and verifying that the entire team understands and appreciates all job roles involved in achieving company goals. Employees at all levels, from the front lines to the C-suite, must also be empowered to voice their opinions, ask questions, share ideas and collaborate with others to solve problems. Successful Lean culture depends upon creating an atmosphere of respect and fostering open, ongoing communication.

To set the stage for culture improvements, employees must also be fully aware of the Lean plan and how these concepts will be used to improve efficiency and problem-solving. In this way, all members, regardless of their department, are on the same page. With this process, it’s crucial to communicate in a way that stays true to Lean culture concepts and sets the tone for the rest of the facility.

Some effective ways to communicate include:

  • Encouraging Questions: Ask open-ended questions about problems and processes. Give team members opportunities to share their thoughts and experiences.
  • Listening Intently: Promote active listening. Really understand what team members are saying. Ask follow-up questions.
  • Collaborating: Connect different cross-disciplinary teams. Give employees at all levels a voice to contribute their ideas and perspectives.

During this time, the company must establish a vision and mission that align with lean concepts and help solidify the tone of its lean culture. This involves effectively communicating how each employee or department is expected to contribute to the process. In this transition, it can be helpful to assign “Culture Champions” to help their peers understand and adjust to the new approach of interdepartmental teamwork and communication.

Now that the stage is set with the appropriate cultural mindset, a company can begin implementing the action steps and templates to fully incorporate Lean operations.

Lean Templates

There are two main template styles to choose from when initiating a Lean program: the PDCA and the A3.


The Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) template can help a company break old habits to develop more efficient and effective practices. Because of its unique versatility, this template can be applied in almost every industry and project. PDCA is a continuous process and involves commitment from the top down.

The four key stages of PDCA include:

Plan – Identify and analyze the problem and how to solve it. Ask:

  • What is the main problem?
  • Is this the core issue?
  • What information is necessary to discover the root cause?
  • What resources are needed to solve it, and are these resources readily available?
  • Is it feasible to solve this issue?

Do - Test the proposed slution with a small-scale project in a controlled environment to understand the expected results. Ask: 

  • Did the plan work?
  • What hiccups were encountered while testing the solution?
  • What steps could be improved, added, or eliminated?
  • What results were accomplished?

Check - Compare results with information gathered in the "Do" stage to evaluate if they align with expectations. Ask:

  • Did the test produce the intended results?
  • Were there any obstacles? Were they resolved? 
  • Was the time and money spent appropriate for the achieved results?
  • What could be improved upon to produce better results?
  • Were team members made aware of the test results and progress?

Act - Implement the plan. Ask: 

  • What is required to implement the new process at full scale?
  • What opportunities are there for improvement?
  • Are any additional resources or training needed to complete the project?
  • How will you track and measure progress along the way?
  • How can these lessons and processes be applied to other procedures?


A3 is rooted in the PDCA cycle and breaks down the process into eight steps. This template can be used for proposals, status updates, problem-solving and more. With a Lean culture and team approach, A3 can guide an organization through the steps to eliminate waste, improve efficiency, address issues, and improve the customer and employee experience.

The eight steps of A3 are:

  1. Clarify the Problem – Identify existing problems and acknowledge that change is necessary. Define a problem by how it deviates from the standard. What gaps exist in the current process? Are customers’ needs met? It’s important to recognize that processes can always improve.
  2. Break Down the Problem – Examine a problem’s components and potential countermeasures. What steps are involved in the existing process that are and are not working? Plan to address problems piece by piece.
  3. Set a Target – How will the problem be solved? What is the goal? What is the deadline? Make sure to set realistic expectations for everyone involved.
  4. Analyze the Root Cause – What caused each factor in the problem? Keep in mind there may be multiple causes.
  5. Develop Countermeasures – How will each cause be prevented from occurring in the future?
  6. Implement Countermeasures – This is the time to act. Engage team members across the organization to contribute ideas. Along the way, track performance and identify areas for improvement. Always be asking, “What is working? What isn’t?”
  7. Evaluate the Results – How is the new process performing? Is it achieving the desired result? Why or why not?
  8. Update the Standard – Once the desired result is achieved, work with all teams to standardize the new process.


A key takeaway from successful problem-solving is recognizing that problems are opportunities, and that the process of solving them is always ongoing. By inviting ideas to the table in a respectful, open, and supportive environment, a culture of collaboration can develop.

Just as companies expect their employees to continually grow and evolve, so too must the processes that run the facility. This continual evolution helps companies stay relevant and grow a sustainable organization with a culture grounded in Lean principles. To be successful, organizations need structures and useful tools like Lean templates, in combination with a strong Lean culture to achieve company goals and promote progress to all employees.

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