Fix everything two ways, learn from everything in multiple ways.

June 3rd, 2013

“Fix everything two ways” is one of the tenets of the Toyota Production System. It means:

  1. Fix the problem at hand — e.g. the part that doesn’t fit on this car being built.
  2. Figure out and fix the underlying issue that caused the problem to occur at all — e.g. the part is designed badly, the worker doesn’t have the right tool to install the part, the batch of metal used to make the part was inferior, etc.

The concept applies much more widely, of course. (I’m hardly the first to point this out.) Let’s say you see that your kids have tracked mud onto the carpet. There are two fixes:

  1. Remove the fresh smudges on the carpet before they set into stains. (Or, better yet, make the kids do it.)
  2. Put a shoe rack by the door and establish a firm policy that muddy shoes have to come off while you’re still in the entryway, before you ever make it to the carpet.

You get the idea — a specific fix, backed up by a structural fix. It’s a smart practice, in many settings.

Learning Multiple Lessons at Once

There’s a related concept I’ve been playing with that I find similarly useful. I thought of it by juxtaposing the preceding idea with the Confucian saying that an attentive person can learn from either a sage or a fool. From the sage, you learn what to do; from the fool, you learn what not to do. By extension, you can absorb lessons at different layers from virtually any situation — IF you’re paying attention.

My focus here is on business lessons, although again this should generalize across many settings. Basically, it operates along two axes:

  • From the particular to the general. So a particular business challenge might teach you about THIS person with whom you’re doing business (their temperament, quirks, likes and dislikes, etc.) at the same time it teaches you something about your approach to dealing with ANY person in business (assume the best, one size does not fit all, be patient, etc.).
  • Across dimensions. I’m talking about dimensions like these:
    • People
    • Projects
    • Processes
    • Institutions
    • Disciplines

To take the “projects” example and apply the rubric “from the particular to the general,” you might address a particular setback on a work project at three distinct levels:

  1. “How do we fix THIS issue?” There’s a particular task that needs doing, but it’s stuck or broken or out of sync. How do you un-stick it, fix it, get it aligned?
  2. “What does this issue say about where this whole project is going?” Maybe there have been persistent breakdowns in communication or work handoffs between two departments, or between you and your vendor. How can you take the fresh example at hand as a call to reorganize the project — or least to get everyone to realize that coordination has been a problem — so that the whole project runs better?
  3. “What does this tell me about organizing projects in general?” A major project I’m shepherding at work keeps reminding me of the mindset I need to have and the practices I need to follow to keep things moving like they should: remind people gently but persistently about what needs to be delivered by when; create better visibility into progress (and lags) for all parties; when in doubt, over-communicate; and so on.

You get the idea: you take the matter at hand not just as a problem to be solved in the moment — a hangnail, so to speak — but as an opportunity to get better at doing a whole class of things.

Help me expand on this?

Is this approach useful to you? What dimensions or nuances would you add to it?

Photo source.

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