Killing Alligators


Killing Alligators

Lean operating systems unlock value by continuously eliminating waste and ensuring it doesn’t return. Operations can feel like standing on a tiny island surrounded by a swamp full of alligators all snapping at your heels. In that situation, two things have to happen to survive and improve: you have to kill an alligator and then keep on killing more alligators.

Ensure It’s Dead

Solving problems requires finding and eliminating the root cause. The root cause is the source of the causal chain that eventually leads to the problem. For example, many people used to accidentally leave their banking card in the ATM machine. They would forget to push complete and have the card returned when they were done with the transaction. The root cause of the problem was people forgetting the card once it left their hand. The solution was to have people swipe the card in the machine so it never leaves their hand. That killed the alligator.

The risk we often face is only solving the direct cause of the problem. If the bank chose to hire a delivery service to return all cards left in ATM machines at the end of every night, they would have only solved the direct cause. People would get their card back, but the alligator is still alive and will return to bite again.

This happens in operations as well. If a machine stops working because an operator bumped a sensor and maintenance readjusts the sensor, it only affects the direct cause. How did the sensor get bumped in the first place? Is it in the path of the operator’s work? Does it need a guard to make sure it doesn’t move if bumped? What is the root cause and can we solve it for good? How do we kill the alligator?

Keep Killing Alligators?

The lean journey never ends because there will always be waste in the system that prevents the ideal state (one-by-one defect free on-demand). Solving problems never ends because there are always problems. And if there are not, then we need to change the standard. There will always be alligators in the swamp.

The key to continuous improvement is to keep killing alligators – to keep solving problems. The key to continuously solving problems is a system that identifies problems, makes sure they get solved, and follows up on the results (make sure the alligator is dead). Identifying problems starts with setting a standard for the activity. Then make the standard visual so everyone involved can see if the standard is met. If the standard was not met ,there is a problem. Making sure problems get solved starts with understanding the direct cause of the problem, then working through a cause analysis to determine the root cause, and putting action in place to eliminate the root cause. The final piece of the system is to follow up on the results of the actions. Did they eliminate the root cause? Did they solve the problem?

Encourage your organization to kill the alligators that snap at their feet everyday. And then create a system to do it everyday!!

Learn more in Patrick’s book, “Facilitating Effective Change,” now available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  He is also the founder of UTV Advisors, a business consulting firm based in Pittsburgh, PA.

Patrick Putorti

Patrick Putorti

Patrick Putorti

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