Human beings tend to get more and more complex as they grow up. By the time the human turns adult, there are several personality disorders that ails a person without the person being aware of it. As the adult grows further and moves to 35 plus age bracket, the personality issues often get compounded resulting in personal agony or pain at a mental level.  

Often it is easy to solve someone else’s challenges be it your friend, be it your family member or be it your work. It is resolving oneself and the conflicts inherent that constitutes the biggest challenge. Do you find this resonating? If yes- then welcome to world of individual problems.

So what’s my problem?? (Pun intended!!) Let us park it and move back to the world of corporate and management consultants. During my growing years, I was part of company that was implementing Gemba Kaizan as a culture for the entire company. Gemba Kaizen is a Japanese management subset of TQM (Total Quality Management) philosophy. Gemba refers to “workplace” and Kaizen is Japanese for “continuous improvement”. For the uninitiated, Kaizen focuses on cleanliness and a signal system to bring in flow for the organization. Primary to the Kaizen is 5S of cleanliness. You can google it to know a bit more if you are inclined. What I am narrating and keen on sharing is my personal experience of this journey.

So my company selected a Gemba Kaizen Management Guru under whose tutelage the entire organization went in for implementing a change. For us, it started with 3 days workshops at the Gemba. (It began with workshops for Top management early). Now I was working in office and not working in the plant which was located about 200kms away. Gemba truly referred to the plant which is where the primary value for the organization was getting unlocked. (Offices and management persons were only support system). This meant every month for 3 days we all toured and stayed close to plant to be a part of the Gemba workshop. Initial 3 sessions (3 days per month x 3 months) were dedicated only for implementing 5S (cleanliness drive). All of us including workers, support staff and management (including Managing director) were expected to participate (none excluded). At the workshop, we were split into groups that were given different sections of the plant and thrusted with a broom, water and any other cleaning material that we wished for. Our work was only cleaning the section we were responsible for. This was hard physical labour work that we never might have done in our homes also (I know what you might be thinking – even I had not signed up for this.)

The idea behind this entire 3 months sessions was to clean the area and get intimate with the section. This act was less for us and more for the workers or operators of the plant. (ok – it was also for us, this will become clear later) Yet our presence and willingness to work for the 3 days were necessary to change mindset of operators to use broom by oneself rather than wait for a dedicated cleaner when required. This was aimed entirely in bringing a cultural shift in plant operators from 2 perspectives 1. Know their own section intimately and even observe hitherto areas not ventured into due to It being unclean or inaccessible. 2. Be ready to make the first move in-case of emergency without waiting for a specialist (eg: cleaner) to make the path ready.  

Our 3rd round of Gemba Kaizen workshop was more on painting and giving a facelift to our respective sections. (Temporarily, we became painters after cleaners). By end of this round most of the sections were clean, easily identifiable and there were clear markers on every piece of equipment identifying to a newcomer that the equipment or tool was useful and a necessary element in that section. All the junked or unusable parts that were earlier kept in that section (either due to ignorance or due to hoarding for emergency) was cleared off (scrapped) with due management approval instantly as they were also available in these workshops. Worn out spares that were hoarded for emergencies were also junked. Fresh orders were initiated wherever necessary with alacrity in the approval process. A bond developed between the operators and management/office staff during this entire workshop due to joint hardship done and management became more accessible and sensitive to the needs of operators. The emphasis was on replacing the erstwhile drag in material indent approval system with better rapport.

It is in the 4th workshop after 5S system was stabilized, that the session suddenly became difficult. Instead of hard labour that we had got accustomed to in previous 3 three-day sessions, in the 4th session our Gemba kaizen activity was different. We were given a section of plant as usual however this time there was no cleaning or any physical activity. Before handing the section, each group was explained on what represented the primary challenge to productivity in that section. Again, for the uninitiated, productivity is unlocking best possible value from a system for eg: if you represent a system and are capable of reading 3 books a day, but are only reading 1 book a day then your productivity is 1/3rd of your normal capacity.

For 3 whole days of 8 hours each from morning to evening we had nothing to do, we were only meant to give a hard look at the flow in our section, observe and use all our senses to come up with reasons for the reduced productivity.  The usual thinking of a person working in office, is that we were not technically qualified and this was beyond us. Yet as intelligent human beings, our work was to use all our faculties like sight, sound, touch, smell and feelings to observe and suggest probable reasons.

In the second half of the 3rd day, all groups were asked to stop and assemble in the meeting room. It was time for each group to present their findings. The consultant asked each group one by one to step up and present their findings. He instructed everyone commonly on how the presentations should happen. When each group stepped onto the stage, the team leaders started explaining what they observed in the past 2.5 days. However, the moment they began with their observations each group were asked to stop and after giving them one more chance they were asked to step aside to make way for the next group. We were the 3rd group to present. Even our team leader began with the explanation of what we observed, when we were asked to stop immediately. We had our second chance. It is then I seized the initiative and began to present. This time we were not stopped.

Wondering what happened differently when I spoke?? Before the presentations, the consultant gave one instruction that most group leaders ignored completely till our group started the chain. The consultant had asked us to first define the problem statement. In our section, we had a mechanical seal that was rated to last 5 years yet invariably failed within 2-3 years causing production breaks as well as wait time for new seal (or meant keeping of spare seal that was very expensive). This was our problem statement and we were doing all our 2 plus day of observing activities to find a breakthrough for this solution. Needless to say, by just repeating the problem statement that was already given to us before the start of workshop, I became the hero for that 3rd day presentation. The findings I made during the 3 workshop days and presented – whether it was significant or not mattered little at that time for the consultant. He was more concerned with the overall focus of group on the problem statement.

With that I come to the moral of the story. It is not different for an individual. The issues affecting an individual can also be clearly identified. However, it is best done with us choosing to clean the mind first. During mind cleaning process, we need to first scrap all those thoughts that are useless and can add no value now (like our past trophies or our past potential, anger with certain persons etc). Our core problem statement can then easily shine forth. If it is still obscured even after the mental clean-up process, then one can use the management technique of using 5 whys.

This technique can be best explained with a example. Your initial problem statement could be “No one is operating the machine “. The first why can bring out the reason as “Operator fell and got injured”. Another why and the answer pops “there was an oil spill on the floor”. Persist with another why and answer comes “oil seal of machine failed and oil from machine leaked. The next why could be answered by “seal was not robust for the pressure of the work” Drilling further down brings the answer that “New seal at lower cost was purchased from new vendor”. If we go further, it may arrive at the policies applicable in the company like unreasonable targets for cost reductions in purchase department.

Now in the corporate world there are multiple heads focussed on the same problem and the teamwork makes it better placed to resolve. Unfortunately – as an individual, it is a single person who has to come up with various assumptions for the why and also challenge the assumptions made. Often a person concludes something based on personal likes and dislikes and defines the problem incorrectly or inadequately based on false assumptions. Here as I see it, the best solution lies in continuous 5S practice of the mind(cleaning). The cleaning of mind can happen through continued efforts in prayers, thankfulness and forgiveness. As we become adept in this, our power of discrimination improves and we are able to identify core problems more clearly.

Directing efforts for getting a solution to the core problem is a story for another day. I stumble, mumble and quietly withdraw here.