What are the pebbles in your shoes?

Each of us, in our everyday work life, faces operational problems: not roadblocks, but daily irritants, deviations from a standard … Frustrating “little” problems that occur regularly, but that we don’t take the time to resolve because they don’t stop us from going on. In other words, “a pebble in the shoe” that should be taken off and dusted before the problem mushrooms and becomes really difficult to treat.

This is not about major or structural issues that can concern organizations and that require a project-mode approach to be treated in-depth.

An operational problem is for example :

  • Too much time required to provide new colleagues with computer equipment
  • Persistent failures of payment terminals at supermarket checkouts
  • Faults in the flaw detection system on a crimping machine
  • Repeated mistakes on expenses reports
  • Too low resolution of a monitoring camera on a packaging line
  • Thread repeatedly breaking on a wiring machine

OPS, what’s the point?

The Operational problem solving (OPS) is an approach based on a simple and quick process: four 30-minute workshops, during which people affected by the problem meet to study and solve it, following this pattern:

  • Workshop 1: Defining and containing the problem using tools such as the WWWWHW method (Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?)
  • Workshop 2: Analyzing the apparent causes and selecting the most probable - 6 M Diagram (Methods? Manpower? Machinery? Mother-nature (environment)? Measurement? Materials?)
  • Workshop 3 : Identifying root causes – 5 Whys analysis
  • Workshop 4:
    o Identifying and choosing lever actions to address root causes
    o Drawing up an action plan

A 3-week implementation phase starts right after the last workshop to deploy the action plan and corrective actions.

At the rate of one meeting a day, lasting 30 minutes, it is thus possible to define a resolution plan to solve the problem in a week. This challenge can be met if three prerequisites are met.

Three indispensable prerequisites

1 – A routine performance management process: operational problem solving is possible only if one of the fundamentals of any learning organization is implemented, that is the daily management of performance. That routine is the daily report of all problems during the last 24 hours. Consolidating all the irritants allows to identify recurrent (and current!) problems that must be treated at their root. In the same way, performance routines are given their full meaning with the OPS approach: root causes are identified and addressed quickly with the right skills around the same table.

2 - Availability of resources: how is it possible to involve all the people concerned by the problem during 30 minutes each day for a week? The answer is simply a matter of planners. Organizations that have managed to implement a successful OPS have consecrated the same thirty-minute timeslot in everyone’s planner, at all levels of the organization. Anyone can therefore be asked and be involved to address a problem as it occurs.

3 - Adoption of tools: while methods such as 6M, 5Whys are simple to use, it is crucial that they are spelled out to the team work and that the team is coached during the whole process. For example, if most people can describe a problem, few can characterize it precisely in less than 30 minutes. This requires a strict and careful preparation. This is why the training should be provided in a targeted form adapted to the concerned parties, and not in a generic session involving the whole organization.

The virtues of the approach

Needless to say, the first benefit of the approach is to solve annoying little issues before they become so big that their removal becomes problematic. Pebbles in shoes are not roadblocks, but they are true issues. But the list of successful improvements caused by the approach is not limited to this consideration.

Addressing frustrating daily issues sends a highly positive message to the teams. Not only do they acknowledge the improvement of a problematic situation, but they are involved in the process of resolving the problem. This allows to empower each associate, who not only witnesses the process, but plays an active part in it.

This inclusive dimension makes a real difference. Organizations that have rooted the OPS in their planning and their performance management systems have people who voluntarily seek the help of others within the organization, people they would never have involved if the approach had not been implemented. Groups arise and develop, making change and continuous improvement happen in their organization.

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