Spot The Problem: A Skill For Leaders To Learn

In my youth in Liverpool I remember a football edition of the Liverpool Echo (known as the football pink) which had a competition called spot the ball. The winner of the competition was the one who guessed where the ball was.

It can be tempting to use a similar approach to problem solving. Look at what you think is the situation and go for a solution. Get it fixed and move on. In reality, when things don't work as expected, there will be many contributory factors and seldom a single root cause.

Take this example of a real problem experienced on a reasonably hi tech bottling line using glass bottles.

Following a change over the Filler ran for a short time and then stopped. On restart, the line would run for a while and then stop. The Team Leader checked and the normal set up routine had been followed to the letter so an engineer was called out.

After about 20 minutes, the Engineer fixed the problem having found that a timing belt had worked loose. He commented that probably operator rough handling when clearing a jammed bottle had caused the bottle feed scroll cog to jump a tooth. The belt was adjusted, the alignment corrected and the line ran ok and the production plan was achieved.

How many contributory factors can you spot here.

Clearly you need more information but the report was made on the night shift and there isn't any. The current shift has its own problems so as departmental manager/leader what do you do with what you have.

The truth is that without shop floor local area ownership and an investment in time for front line teams to systematically trap and deal with such micro problems, most organisations just move on.

The stoppage took around 20 minutes to resolve (worth 4% OEE over the shift) and it is easy to find that such stoppages are treated as unavoidable but typically 8 out of 10 of these type of stoppages are due to a failure to set standards and weaknesses in training/working method design. A characteristic of poor Leadership.

How can front line personnel be expected to deliver high levels of value with a Leadership mindset that does not allow time for learning from these events.

In contrast, high performing organisations, their leaders invest time in developing local area front line teams to use such events to tease out and refine working methods so that they are easy to do right, difficult to do wrong and simple to learn.

What leaders need to learn when looking at their organisations approach to recurring problems are:

The most common characteristics of recurring problems are not technical weaknesses but gaps in accountabilities. These gaps hide weaknesses in shop floor learning and development processes which hides working methods that are easy to do wrong, difficult to do right and take a long time to master.

The returns for Leaders who invest in front line team time to flush out and resolve those gaps include making it easier to:

  • Develop the skills needed to underpin flexibility
  • Reduce levels of quality defects
  • Engage front line personnel with improvement
  • Empower front line team decision making process.
  • Why would you do anything else. As they often asked in the Liverpool Echo…answers on a post card etc….

For those who are interested in what happened next...

The local area TPM team identified their 5 Why as below. Using a TPM problem prevention process they consider each why to identify potential solutions. The front line team, coached by their team leader, then developed, testing and formalising countermeasures over a period of weeks as part of the routine day to day management process.

  Why Potential Solutions
1. Filler would not fill because bottles were not aligned with filler head Improve visual controls
2. Feed scrolls were out of position using standard set up method Check as part of set up
3. Scroll cog had jumped a tooth so that the datum location was incorrect

Make datum lines visible at a glance

4. Timing belt had become loose and was out of adjustment which had permitted excess movement during cleaning and set up

Check adjustment as part of cleaning

5. Lack of asset care/check on belt testing also potential miss handling leading to accelerated wear   Focus on jam handling and jam reduction


  Action Countermeasures applied to prevent reoccurrence
1. Operator/maintainer training Training re bottle handling and improved asset care
2. Improve daily asset care Check belt adjustment during cleaning and set up
3. Improve inspection/ testing

Improve bottle jam handling methods,

Improve trouble shooting algorithm to identify causes earlier.

4. Improve planned maintenance Improved belt care
5. Component modification Visual indicators and
6. Improved working methods Bottle removal following jam
7. Other Assess potential for jam reduction project