Manufacturing Lead Times Slashed by 66%!

Case Study, demonstrating how the Reversal is used as a creative problem solving tool

Key Definition of Creativity: Generation of ideas which are both novel and useful

This Case Study was generated at an Ideas Centre workshop in Birmingham (UK). The “Problem Owner” was the Engineering Director of a company that manufactured bespoke diesel generator start-up units for oil & gas installations – who was under increasing pressure to reduce the lead time from order placement to delivery for their individually customised systems. They had half an idea that the issue involved standardisation in some way – but had as yet failed to solve the issue.

The whole problem solving process outlines below took 60 minutes – on-sight, involving just 3 people.

Problem as Defined: How can we increase the use of core designs?
Technique Used: Lego

Step 1 – Problem Exploration

We all have an unfortunate and unavoidable urge to rush in and solve problems (second stage thinking) before we truly understand them (demanding the exploratory first stage thinking). The result may be a useful idea, but not one that really hits the mark and fixes things.

So, before rushing in and solving the kind of sticky problems that just won’t go away, that need some breakthrough (creative) thinking, we need to make sure that we have explored them fully first.

The Boundary Examination technique is designed specifically for this purpose. It takes an initial problem statement (Problem as Defined) and dissects each word used in its construction. By generating a wide range of alternatives for each, the Problem Owner is encouraged to think again, to try and pin down precisely what their problem is all about. More specifically, the technique demands a focus on the perfect, dream-world outcome that the Problem Owner would wish for, to generate a solution that can only be solved by overcoming mental blockages. This then becomes the “Problem as Understood”.

The Problem as Defined: How can we increase the use of core designs?

(Let’s score this “+2” on the quality of “goodness” that solving it will generate)

Then became the Problem as Understood:

In what way might Engineering guarantee that the 100% of all client custom products are totally, totally based on totally modular designs?

(Surely, solving this will score +20!)

Note how this is a much, much tighter, stretched definition of the problem. The Problem as Defined, in retrospect, can be solved within the world of “how we do things around here” – with “reduce” being achieved by “try harder” (noting that a reduction of 0.001% is still a reduction i.e. problem solved! By comparison, the Problem as Understood looks ridiculous – but only when viewed from the company’s version of reality; the only way we can solve this is to generate novelty – i.e. generate creativity.

So, having generated a much stronger understanding of the problem, we are set to look at generating solutions.

Technique Used: Reversal

Reversal is a beautifully logical process for creative problem solving – and ideal starting point for overcoming the blocks that trap us in conventional and traditional thinking.

The technique starts by acknowledging the difficulty of generating novel (brilliant) solutions due to these mental blocks, that we then need to find our way around. The technique does this by first reversing the Problem, as Understood, making it an extreme (in a negative i.e. reversed sense) as possible.

This generates a ridiculous problem definition – which the creative team then set about solving. Each one of these solutions will definitely solve the reversed problem, but they are crazy. Pick the most extreme, identify the key characteristics that make it work as a solution (albeit for the reverse solution) …… then reverse these characteristics (taking care to retain their extreme – but now positive – nature).

These are then the characteristics of an extreme positive solution – and a skilled Facilitator can then help in piecing together the elements of that solution. Bingo – you have now effectively tricked the brain to get around the mental blocks!

Step 2 – reverse the problem statement!

Taking care not to lose the extreme nature of the Problem as Understood, this was reversed to:

In what way might Engineering guarantee that the engineering element of any product is never, ever, ever completed?

(Scoring minus 20 on our goodness scale of solutions!)

This is clearly a ridiculous problem statement – designed within the process to disorientate the team; no-one has ever tried to solve this problem before, and that is exactly the point!

Step 3 – idea generation for this reversed problem statement

Being disoriented effectively frees up the thinking of those involved – and they are now liberated to brainstorm truly outrageous solutions to this problem statement. They have no constraints; everyone can see that this is ridiculous, so the associated solutions will likewise be completely novel, but completely useless – the ideal stepping stone to creativity (generating an idea that is both novel and useful).

Of all of the ideas generated, the craziest of the lot (noting that it would definitely solve the reversed (-20) problem statement) was:

Employ a consultant to work full time with the business development team to in turn work with the client to constantly revise and amend the product specification, to constantly move the goal posts

This would definitely solve the problem – no doubt about that!

Step 4 – identify key attributes of the -20 solution that make it work

So, why does the solution work? What guarantees that it will fix the problem? What is the key attribute that we need to work with?

Through discussion, we identified the following:

The introduction of a constant motivation to constantly move the engineering goalposts to extend the lead time.

Step 5 – reverse the-20 attribute

This was simple – introduce a motivation to constantly move the goalposts to reduce the lead time. This in turn led to a discussion of micro changes, which introduced the idea of “micro simplicity”. This was an odd concept, as the Engineering team had imagined large scale modularity to drive simplicity

At a micro level, the Engineering team started thinking of simplified, flexible piece-parts. Rather than everything being engineered for a precise, specific, fit – design in slots and tabs for flexibility, allowing customisation to be built in within the Manufacturing process (rather than Engineering).

Then … a bonus emerged in the thinking – designing these flexible “slot and tab” components means that the assembly process has in-built latitude (or self-jiggling!) within the manufacturing process, therefore taking significant time out of both Engineering and Manufacturing.

The customer gets what they consider to be a customised product – but is all based on micro standard modules with flexible interactions. The final result? Lead time reduced from over 22 weeks to less than 10 weeks; in fact, in some cases, less than 8 weeks!