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Continuing with more insight from our Lean Champion programme, Senior Manufacturing Advisor Geoff Crossley explains why small improvements matter just as much as big ones, and why stopping any abnormality at the root by celebrating learning is always better than finding a workaround.


In my last blog I introduced one of the big rules we set on day one of our 2022-23 Lean Champion programme: ‘Whatever You Walk By Is The New Standard’.

What we mean by that is you should never just walk by if you see an abnormality or deviation from the standard. Everyone, at every level, needs to uphold Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) at all times, whatever the scenario.

When the abnormality is an emergency, such as a severe safety hazard or major defect, stopping everything and correcting the abnormality immediately feels natural.

But what happens in the case of a seemingly minor issue, something that isn’t that important or doesn’t directly affect production? Let’s say it’s a missing spanner. Seems pretty small as problems go, but losing a few minutes here and there because someone needs to go on a treasure hunt will have a significant impact on your productivity. Excellent manufacturers think like F1 teams; every tenth of a second matters. So what do you do?

The answer depends on whether you have what we call a ‘firefighting’ culture or a ‘learning’ culture.

The firefighter’s response

An organisation that celebrates firefighting will seek a temporary workaround to lesser problems like a missing spanner. For example, it might be to use an adjustable spanner so if one size goes walkabout it won’t be missed.

The problem, which you can read more about in our earlier guide to firefighting versus learning, is that putting out fires never treats the underlying cause. The same problems will keep returning again and again.

In our example, using an adjustable spanner will cause more pain in the long-run:

  • Spanners will continue to go missing, because you never addressed why one went missing in the first place
  • Adjustable spanners are not as accurate so nuts will get rounded off over time, causing knock-on problems down the line.

You’re likely left with a bigger problem than the one you started with! When you’re continually firefighting, you end up with workarounds on top of workarounds and SOP goes out of the window. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

The learner’s response

Learning organisations are different. A learning organisation does not firefight or accept workarounds. They take the time to truly understand a problem, learn from them and eliminate them forever. It sees problems of any size as an opportunity for continuous improvement rather than an obstacle to be avoided.

In the case of a missing spanner, a learning organisation would focus time on understanding why it actually went missing:

  • Was it taken by someone from another station? If so, why did they need it and why didn’t they return it?
  • Is there someone who has a bad habit of leaving tools lying around? If so, why do they consider that behaviour acceptable, and why hasn’t it been dealt with before?

Depending on the root cause, the end solution might be to implement a shadow board and edit SOP to ensure tools are always returned to the board after use. But that’s just the physical fix.

Most of the time, problems are cultural rather than physical. How do you ensure everyone upholds and follows SOP once you have the shadow board in place? How do you stop people doing what they’ve always known and feel comfortable with? This is what learning organisations excel at.

It’s a team effort

Celebrating learning over firefighting is a key lesson we instilled in our Lean Champion training. Every abnormality, no matter how small, is a learning opportunity.

There are no hard and fast rules to developing the ethos of a learning organisation, but good communication is a crucial element.

People learn by coming together and talking. Communicating the issue with everyone involved, rather than keeping it as something between management and offender, will keep it at the forefront of everyone’s minds and encourage collective accountability. In the words of Rebecca Lee from Fabricon Design, one of the manufacturers we’ve supported: “In our business it’s not the managers advising the offender, it’s the rest of the team.”

Morning or end-of-day meetings with your team are a perfect opportunity to get to the bottom of smaller problems and learn from them. With everyone around the table, start with a quick Five Whys exercise to identify the root cause of what went wrong. For more complex problems, use fishbone (cause and effect) diagrams. Discover what went wrong from everyone’s perspective and see that the learning from it takes place. Reinforce a culture of celebrating learning by communicating successes from previous problem solving exercises. 

Be methodical about it

Of course, talking alone is not enough. You need to follow a consistent method to identify and implement solutions that ensure the problem never happens again.

Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) is a mantra our Lean Champion cohorts heard time and time again, and for good reason. Many manufacturers talk about PDCA but just pay it lip service. But if you want to solve problems, do it properly.

Take things right back to basics and follow the process methodically:

  • Plan: Stand back, take a breath and look at the problem. Understand it. Quantify it. What data can you gather? (e.g. how much time was lost looking for the spanner? How often does it happen? When is it happening? What is the impact on the business?)
  • Do: Don’t make knee-jerk reactions or take a stab in the dark at what the solution should be. Take your learning, identify evidence-based improvements and test them
  • Check: Continue to gather quantitative data. What difference did your improvement make. Review with the team and share your findings so everyone understands the impact
  • Act: If your solution is successful, adopt it into SOP and keep it under review.

Arden Dies in Stockport is a fantastic example of a company that, with our support, learnt to use this methodical, team-based learning approach to solving small problems.

In one instance, management identified that an existing process for replacing broken tools was not fit for purpose. When tools broke, production had to stop for 10-15 minutes at a time while operators went to grind a replacement.

Working with the whole team, management identified and implemented a new process to batch-grind tools in advance so they are always available to operators. They followed the PDCA cycle, which means they are still continually looking to improve the process, as Product Manager Julian Homer explains:

“We’re now looking at how we can reduce tool breakages in the first place, so it’s still an ongoing project. It sometimes feels like opening a can of worms, which then leads to another can of worms, but that’s how continuous improvement works.

“It’s a never-ending process that’s already made a huge difference for us. We’ve now employed a Continuous Improvement Manager who is like a dog with a bone – he gets everyone around the table and makes sure there is accountability.”

Fix problems forever

Follow the PDCA cycle, get everyone around the table and make sure there is accountability. I couldn’t put it better myself!

When everyone is bought in to a learning culture, no one walks by and ignores smaller problems; they come together and make sure they are fixed for good.


GC Business Growth Hub was part financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) 2014-2021, as part of a portfolio of ERDF-funded programmes designed to help ambitious SME businesses achieve growth and increase employment in Greater Manchester. Eligibility criteria was applied. The 2014-2021 ERDF  fund was allocated by the European Union that finances convergence, regional competitiveness and employment and territorial co-operation.

Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), formerly the Department for Communities and Local Government was the managing authority for the European Regional Development Fund Programme, which was one of the funds established by the European Commission to help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support local businesses and create jobs. For more information, visit European Regional Development Fund: Documents and Guidance - GOV.UK (


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