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Problem solving | Efficiency drivers

Clients are progressively turning to business tools, like Lean and Six Sigma, to increase efficiencies and successfully deliver projects.

The concept of a problem solving “toolkit” is enough to make even the least cynical among us sigh in exasperation. It is difficult not to baulk at the use of buzzwords like innovation and continuous improvement, but civils projects are increasingly being pervaded by these terms. But clients are progressively turning to these business tools.

A prime example is the work currently underway at Highways England. In 2009, the organisation established a Lean team, tasked with improving engagement with the supply chain.

Total synergy

“In 2013, we also commenced engagement with our internal colleagues, so now we have total synergy where we’re deploying Lean as an integrated team with suppliers and internal staff,” says Highways England technical leader for supply chain Lean deployment Neal Symmons.

“In April 2015, we became a government company and we’ve been charged with delivery of the Roads Investment Strategy. A key element of that is delivering £1.212bn of efficiency savings. The Lean team has identified within its strategy that we can commit to contribute £250M in savings.”

So what makes the organisation so confident that the Lean approach can help it deliver these savings? “Lean is about continuous improvement and making the business better,” explains Symmons. “The four major players in ‘continuous improvement’ are Lean, Six Sigma, Total Productive Maintenance and Triz. Lean is a structured technique to solve problems. Triz is a structured innovation technique to come up with ideas. And that is how the two dovetail.”

With Lean, it’s pretty basic stuff, but we define the problem, measure the current situation, assess and analyse what’s happening, and put an improvement plan in place, then control and roll it out

Neal Simmons, Highways England

When challenged with solving a problem, says Symmons, most people do not use a structured technique, but instead rely on a “gut solution”. “With Lean, it’s pretty basic stuff, but we define the problem, measure the current situation, assess and analyse what’s happening, and put an improvement plan in place, then control and roll it out. That’s the structured approach to problem solving.”

However, Symmons admits that the Lean tools can prove insufficient when it comes to the “improvement” phase of the approach. “In that ‘improve’ section I know that we can always do better in the world of Lean. That’s where Triz comes in. It’s a toolkit that makes you think differently. It really makes you think outside of the box,” he says.

In order to hone its deployment of the Triz system, Highways England has been working with Oxford Creativity over the last 18 months. The firm, founded by former mechanical engineer Karen Gadd, has trained and educated engineers and scientists around the world to help them master the structured problem solving techniques that form the Triz toolkit.

Russian acronym

The Russian acronym stands for the considerably less snappy Teoriya Resheniya Izobretatelskikh Zadatch, which means the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, developed in 1946 by Soviet inventor Genrich Altshuller and his colleagues.

Gadd believes that Triz fills a void in many of the alternative toolkits because they all cover similar areas. “They’re great but what they have in them is a great hole; you go so far with problem understanding and then they all say ‘solve the problem here’. The only solution they offer is brainstorming, then they come back on track and start on solutions development,” she says.

“Triz is completely different and it fills in that hole,” insists Gadd. “That makes it very complementary to all the other toolkits. So people say ‘oh, not another toolkit’ with a big sigh because they think it’s just another initiative, but when they see what it is they get really excited because it’s really different to anything else they do.”

100 answers

The Triz toolkit works under the premise that there are generally 100 answers to any problem, with 40 of those being the most relevant. Triz, therefore, focuses on 40 key ways of solving any contradiction.

“These 40 principles get people really excited when they learn about them, especially engineers. They often say ‘if I’d known about them before, I would have solved problems a lot faster’,” says Gadd. “Engineers are always really keen when they see the principles and they really make it work for them.”

Despite this enthusiasm, there is often some initial resistance from engineers who view the toolkit as yet another corporate fad accompanied by dreaded business jargon.

“Yes, there is some resistance at first. This was definitely the case up to two years ago, but more and more it’s becoming commonplace within businesses,” explains Symmons.

Stepping away from the desk

Gadd agrees that tide of cynicism is turning: “Most people are really up for it if you’re giving them something new and innovative. To actually step away from their desk and emails during our training sessions is a huge relief for them.”

“It’s very structured, algorithmic and step-by-step, which of course engineers love. It was designed by engineers for engineers. That’s a big plus point. It wasn’t invented on some Californian beach by some clever tech guys,” she adds.

During the recommended three-day training sessions, Oxford Creativity mixes teaching with practical problem solving, along with animated illustrations that help foster an environment that is structured but fun, explains Gadd. “If you make people laugh then they learn better. It’s all about working very hard but having a lot of fun with it,” she says. “We’ve commissioned hundreds of Triz cartoons and we work to make it clear at a glance.

Hitting the ground running

“People are usually too busy to spend months or weeks learning something. We teach it as we go along and get them problem solving straight away. We really want people to hit the ground running.

“At the end of the sessions, people stagger out and say their brain hurts and that they’re absolutely exhausted, but that they’ve enjoyed themselves and learned a lot.”

Gadd says that her work with Highways England has allowed the organisation to bring more innovation into its Lean approach. “They have adopted Triz as a way of getting structured innovation in. We’ve had some pretty spectacular success with Highways England and its suppliers of problems being solved,” she says.

Big successes

Symmons confirms that the team has had some really “big successes” since implementing the Triz approach, including a recent project with A-One+. “A good example is bridge deck waterproofing. Usually the normal way to waterproof the deck is to plane off the surface and then put down the waterproofing material,” he says.

“In one particular case, water was getting past the bridge deck waterproofing system ruining the concrete. Shutting the bridge to traffic was just not an option and there was no diversion route that would have been applicable. So, consequently, we started thinking about waterproofing materials that would behave like water, and that would follow the tracks of water, then become a solid compound, for example, or a rubberised compound.”

Symmons says that the team’s “out of the box” thinking using various Lean and Triz tools, led them to find a new product solution from Germany that will be deployed on the project.

New way of thinking

It is this new way of thinking and approaching problems which, Symmons believes, will continue to influence the way clients work with the supply chain to resolve issues and successfully deliver projects.

“We have educated and worked with the supply chain and now in our contracts we have sections covering ‘continuous improvement’,” says Symmons. “The recommended methodology is Lean. Under ‘innovation’ in some of our contracts, we have now introduced the concept of structured innovation, as in Triz.”

“Looking ahead, I hope the industry sees that this is not a fly by night approach,” he says. “It’s not just some quirky thing we do in the corner with the Triz bolt-on. It’s a business operating system, helping you to run a successful business.” 



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