3 Levels of a “Fix”

3 Levels of a Fix -

With over 30 years in continuous improvement, I have had the opportunity to hear from and study with a number of truly learned people. In the early 80’s, I was part of what was essentially a Deming User’s group. Through conferences and meetings, I got to meet and learn from Brian Joiner, Bill Scherkenbach, Ed Baker, Don Wheeler, Gipsie Ranney, and of course, Dr. Deming.

There are many others I could add to that list, but one I cannot leave off is Peter Scholtes. Peter was the author of the Team Handbook and was a member of Joiner Associates from Madison, Wisconsin. This blog post is in Peter’s honor because these “levels” are his design. I found his explanation extremely useful and I have used it with numerous teams and companies over the years. Below is what I learned from my friend and mentor.

Peter stated that whenever someone encounters a problem there are three levels of fix that can be applied.

Three Levels of a Fix -

Level One is to “Fix the Problem.” Level Two is to “Implement Inspection.” Level Three is to “Change the System” or process.

Level 1: Fix the Problem

Fixing the problem is clearly seen in customer oriented processes. If something causes the customer to be dissatisfied, resources are put into place to correct the situation. Fixing the problem addresses several aspects of the issue:

  • What is the magnitude of the problem?
  • How can we prevent the problem from getting bigger?
  • How can we address the current situation?

In a restaurant, for example, imagine your food is delivered but what you are served is not what you ordered. Upon notification, the waiter typically apologizes for the error, takes your plate back to the kitchen, and promises to bring you your meal as quickly as possible.

But happens behind the scenes?

  • Was the meal that was returned intended for another customer?
  • If so, how do we address their meal?
  • Can the kitchen expedite the correction without causing other errors?
  • Does expediting cause additional delays to other orders?
  • Finally, in many cases, the restaurant will offer the replaced meal at no cost in order to keep the customer happy.

All of these actions are wastes of the process. This one example leads to the waste of Defects, Motion and Overproduction. But do we have a choice? Can we do nothing? Of course not. This level of customer service is necessary to keep customers coming back to the restaurant. In fact, it is accepted practice in many restaurants and thereby provides “value” to the restaurant.

However, this “fix” often happens so frequently that people who are good at it end up being rewarded for it. They are the “firefighters” and “superheroes” working to keep customers satisfied even though the errors continue to happen.

Level 2: Implement Inspection

As the number of problems increase, the next fix is to implement inspection – which is generally some form of checking or approval. The logic is that finding and fixing a problem before it reaches the customer is easier and less expensive than trying to recover after the customer detects the issue. However, every form of inspection adds more waste to the process.

Finding and fixing a problem before it reaches the customer is easier and less expensive than trying to recover after the customer detects the issue.

I understand why we do it, but what can we do to get rid of this waste? How can we reduce the number of defects created?

We tend to overcheck things. Many businesses commit significant resources to check and approve work. One of the most difficult issues is that once an inspection step is put into place, there is rarely a good way to reduce or eliminate it. Even if the conditions change and it’s no longer needed. It becomes ingrained into the process and no one considers whether or not it is still effective. I have worked in processes where the procedures require a supervisor to sign off on work done by their subordinates. When asked “how many did you not approve in the last year?” The answer is often, “None.” How many years must go by without a rejection before the approval is no longer needed?

Inspection, while beneficial in terms of keeping problems from reaching the customer, are simply additional non-value added steps in processes that we need to minimize or eliminate.

Level 3: Change the System

Peter’s third fix is to work on changing or improving the system. This is simply having people engage in what we would define as a continuous improvement project.

The three fixes are logical and therefore, why this model is so significant.

Peter added one more block to his stack of fixes, “Do Productive Work.” My definition of “Do Productive Work” consists of the value-added steps within the process. They are the steps customers desire which transform the inputs into outputs to meet their needs. Ideally, the amount of time spent in this category would be 100%. But it never is. Why? Because things happen which cause us to spend time fixing things, and soon we are checking things so that we don’t have to fix so many things. You get the picture.

3 Levels of a Fix -

Peter noted research which showed that 30-40% of total company efforts are spent fixing and checking processes. Only 1-4% of the time is spent making changes to the system. When I ask people how they are doing on their improvement projects and they haven’t made the desired progress, guess what the number one reason is? “I didn’t have time.” Why would an organization only spend only 1-4% of their time on improvement? Because resources get consumed from top to bottom. As Jack Bergman famously said, “Why is it that we never have enough time to do it right the first time, but we always have enough time to do it over?” As stated above, once a problem has occurred, we really have little choice but to expend the resources to “fix the problem.”

Why is it that we never have enough time to do it right the first time, but we always have enough time to do it over?

So how do we resolve this dilemma? Most organizations have only two solutions that seem to work:

Solution 1:

Add dedicated resources whose full-time job is to work on Process Improvement (Within GE, their Black Belt designation was not depth of knowledge regarding improvement tools, but rather whether they worked on process improvement full-time – Black Belt designation – or part-time while working their regular job assignment – Green Belt designation).

Solution 2:

Make a conscientious decision to commit the time to the improvement project knowing full well that some other “normal” business items may not get done or some additional work hours (overtime) may be required.

It is a difficult decision, but the good news is that if improvement efforts are successful, you can reclaim a lot of the cost and time that is “stuck” in those wasted areas. Short-term there is a need for investment, but long-term you should reap a good return. Management must stay aware of this requirement and be ready and willing to make the investment.

Craig is a Senior Consultant at and a Master Black Belt with over 25 years of success working with companies like Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Stepan Company. He’s an expert at helping people learn and apply Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.

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