Written by Jamie Flinchbaugh

Part 1 highlighted the history of andon and discussed three of the five core elements in the architecture of building an Andon system. Those two elements focused on determining your problem surfacing methods, you can find that here. Part 2 focuses on building your problem solving methods. 

We’ve explored the idea that you need a common way to define the problem, detect the problem, and surface the problem. You need a common way to manage problems or you just have reactive firefighting. All of this is useless without bringing the right resources to engage with the person and the problem.

If you have established your problem surfacing methods, you are ready to begin building your problem solving methods library. To do this using an andon system, you need to determine who will respond and what form the response should take.

  1. Who will respond. This particular design element of the architecture gets too little thought and attention. Most problems go through the chain of command and we surface them to our direct boss. But in some cases, the next level in the organisation isn’t any better able to resolve the problem than the person who found it. This is particularly true for deeply technical resources. If you manage a laboratory with 5 of the best minds in a diverse set of fields, how on earth can you solve all their technical problems?

The question is who is in the best position to provide the necessary help or coaching? In one organisation, when an area gets into a certain level of trouble, they invoke a help chain by declaring that they are in “task force” mode. Certain operating rules are triggered, and help is provided. An effective response is the involvement of a deeply-skilled technical resource. They aren’t assigned to any team in particular on an on-going basis, but are available to coach teams through the problems they have surfaced.

  1. High agreement of the response. What form should the response take from that resource, and just as important, when? The person triggering the andon must know how long they must wait before they should expect a response. This allows them to stay focused on the problem at hand instead of focusing their attention on if and when help will arrive. On a Toyota assembly line, you must respond immediately, or at least within the cycle time of one unit. Team Leaders cannot spend time off the floor in meetings or they would be unable to respond to their team’s needs, and that is one of the highest priorities.

The form of the response is vital. Is it coaching, or is it transferring ownership of the problem? If it could be either, how do we determine which form to take? The proper response must be consistent, because if the person triggering the andon does not know what response they will receive, they will resist using andon.

The answer to this may greatly depend on the maturity of your organisation. If you have front-line resources with high turnover, little problem solving skill or organisational context, then it would be hard to expect them to get coached through solving the problem for themselves. This may result in transference of the problem to the supervisor or manager. You may also transfer ownership to someone because they can resolve the issue quickly with a decision within their rights. For example, you may be behind your milestones on a product development project, and it can be solved simply by approving some outside spending or overtime.

On the other hand, if you never respond with coaching, then you won’t develop the skill the organisation needs in order to solve problems. The coaching that occurs as a result of an andon pull is one of the most effective sources of learning, whether it is from a behind-schedule decision or determining an innovative course of action on a technical product design.

Is it a problem or not?

Keep in mind that every problem surfaced from andon triggers does not need to result in a problem solving effort. Problem solving effort is an incremental investment in making your system stronger. But the important word is investment. If you are doing problem solving well, you are likely going deep, and very unlikely able to respond to every single issue with that level of depth. If you treat every issue raised the same, you will likely go shallow on all of them.

So one decision, which is part of the response, is whether or not we should perform problem solving, or instead, to make a clear distinction, simply apply a Band-Aid to the problem. If the gas gauge on your vehicle shows Empty, you do not need to start a formal problem solving process with a map of the fuel system. You simply go to the fuel station and refill you tank.

Behaviours, not just system

While this is a topic for an entire article on its own, I’ve already made the point that problem solving tools are insufficient, the development of an andon system is insufficient as well. You will still need the right behaviours, determined by an underlying culture, to be successful. If people don’t value the transparency of problems, they will resist triggering the help chain. If leaders don’t value people development, they will not coach when the opportunity arises.

But how do you build a culture? By practicing. An effective andon system, or help chain, provides the right driver for good practice to build your lean culture.