In the medical world, a symptom is just the visible evidence of a disease or injury. For example, swollen painful joints may be a symptom of arthritis, or nausea might be a symptom of food poisoning.
In continuous improvement, symptoms are similar. They are the ‘tells’ that let you know that there is something that is just not right with a process or product. They are often the only way to identify an underlying problem-the root cause of an issue. A specific type of symptom is the abnormal condition-an indicator that something is disrupting the smooth operation of a process.
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There are two main takeaways regarding symptoms in Lean. The first is that you have to learn to identify them. The problem is that we have convinced ourselves that many symptoms are not really indicators of a problem, but rather just the way things are. For example, we may not look at a pile of boxes as a symptom of a problem with inventory management or as a hedge against poor quality, but rather as just the material we need to do business.
As a result, if we are not extremely open to identifying our current conditions as a symptom of a problem, we will never go after solutions.
The second issue is that we frequently try to treat the symptom itself, rather than go after prevention of the root cause. This is the equivalent of squeezing a balloon. Clamp your hand around one end, and it pops out at the other. When you treat a symptom, instead of the underlying problem, other symptoms have a way of popping up in another location.
So, the better way of dealing with a problem is to go after the core problem-the thing causing all the symptoms in the first place.
Why isn’t this done more frequently? After all, it sounds obvious.
It can be hard to find the root cause. Sometimes symptoms appear to be the underlying problem.
Root causes are often harder to fix than symptoms.
Some people don’t link the problem with the symptom. They may see searching for a specific box as something that is wrong, but not link it to excess of inventory-perhaps they see it instead as a warehousing problem.
So, be particularly open-minded about what you define as a symptom, and be relentless in the way you go after the root cause of the problem.