Product Improvement -- Which Approach?

Jay Mandelbaum, along with three co-authors, published a book titled Value Engineering Synergies with Lean Six Sigma: Combining Methodologies for Enhanced Results, and I recently had the chance to ask him a few questions during a phone conversation. I wanted some more clarification on value engineering, but more specifically, I asked him: "Why is it important to use more than one approach to product improvement?" Here is Jay's response:

Different process and product improvement methods were developed under different circumstances -- each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Value Engineering (VE) is a practice that is distinguished from other techniques by three elements -- analysis of functions; a multidisciplinary team approach; and the step-by-step VE Job methodology.

VE works synergistically with all other continuous improvement initiatives. It makes any project better by using a unique approach to problem solving that includes the analysis of the functions of an item or a process to determine best value. More specifically, VE systematically determines all of the necessary functions of the item or process, identifies those functions that cost more than they are worth, and brainstorms alternative ways to perform those functions for further evaluation. This distinctive approach drives innovation because it encourages people to think about solutions in atypical ways.

An example recently came to my attention. The New York City FAIRTAX software integrates 40 major systems, 3,000 programs, and 1,400 job streams into seven subsystems, incorporating state-of-the-art technologies and an advanced development environment. The subsystems are: Taxpayer ID, Returns Processing, Property Management, Charge Processing, Accounts Receivable, Collections, and Case Tracking. The amount of information that needed to be input exceeded the capacity of all existing technologies. A Value Team analyzed the functions of the system architecture, software development, hardware, implementation plan, and staffing requirements. The study produced a change in the program to reduce the computer capacity requirements and a revised implementation and staffing plan which yielded monthly savings of $325,000.

What do you think of Jay's response? Do you have any experience using value engineering?


Problem Solving and the Lean Journey

Samuel Obara has published a great new book titled Toyota by Toyota: Reflections from the Inside Leaders on the Techniques That Revolutionized the Industry. This book comprises chapters written by former Toyota associates from locations around the world detailing their experiences learning, understanding, and leading Lean culture and methodologies.

Samuel was the main editor and composed a chapter on the problem-solving PDCA (plan-do-check-act) method. I recently asked him: "Why is problem solving so important along the Lean Journey?" Here is his response:

When introducing and implementing Lean techniques, one will certainly face many problems. For example, we cannot connect processes without hitting several problems; we cannot lower inventory levels without unveiling new problems; we cannot adjust to Takt time without encountering all sorts of problems.

With so many new problems being created so fast, solving them in an effective way becomes vital to solidify the success of each step in the Lean journey. Adopting early a methodology that has been proven effective can avoid the frustration of the constant hitting or missing. In today’s competitive environment, the winner is whoever misses the least.

One question that can start an effective discussion is: How well are we using the problem-solving methods that are widely available and have been proven effective? Sometimes the impression is that we overlook the connections between the facts and always end up with the solution we had preconceived way before we started.

Another question is: Why are we so afraid of problems? In many organizations people simply abolished the word problem. This forbidden word has now officially been replaced by opportunities. This attitude tells me people really have great fear of problems. As my colleague and mentor Darril Wilburn always says, "Opportunities are taken, problems must be solved.” He reminds me that problem solving is such a fundamental and intricate element of TPS/Lean that Toyota calls problem solving "the Toyota Business Practice." In reality, the common job description of all associates is problem solver.

Because a Lean journey implies that problems will always be created, we must ensure that we develop problem solvers that truly state the problem and understand the root causes. The better we are the less we fear.

How does problem solving function in your company? Does your company use a specific methodology?