Why is it that when companies are getting wealthier, median wages are not rising?

Posted August 5, 2015 by Problem Solving Fire
Categories: Uncategorized

The employment situation is already improving, although not as much as we would like it to be.  However, there is a scary insight on the state of productivity given by MIT’s professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.  The authors of the “The Second Machine Age”, found that although the GDP of the United States of America has been rising, and while the median wage has also been rising, the rates at which they are doing so does not match. Basically, the GDP increases are growing much faster than wages.  The authors call this The Great Decoupling:

Being Productive in the Information Rich Environment


OECD forecast that in 2015:

“After rising steeply to a peak of 10% in the fall of 2009, the US unemployment rate has been slowly declining for more than five years. It was 5.3% in June, finally approaching it pre-crisis level of 4.8% seven and one-half years earlier. Unemployment has been even slower to decline in many other advanced countries as is reflected in the 7.0% OECD average.

The unprecedented rise in long-term unemployment during the crisis in the US has also begun to unwind, albeit even more slowly than overall unemployment. The share of job seekers who had been out of work for a year or longer was still 22.6% at the end of 2014, more than double its 9.9% level in 2007 Q4.

Some of the decline in long-term unemployment reflects discouragement, rather than re-employment, as reflected in the 2.6 percentage-points (ppts) decline in the participation rate from 75.3% in 2007 to 72.7% in 2014. Many who have stopped actively searching for new jobs may never return to work, reinforcing the downward trend in participation rates observed since the late 1990s. This trend contrasts sharply with rising participation rates in most OECD countries and could reduce the growth potential of the US economy if not reversed.”

Answer 1.  Companies are not appreciating employees as much as they should be?

Answer 2.  By comparison, employees are not ‘as productive’ as the ‘capital equipment’ recently acquired by the company?

Putting these two together, it means that while companies are getting wealthier (and more productive) their employees does not appear to be as productive as their capital investments.  Because if employees are keeping pace with productivity, there is no reason the companies are not paying higher wages.



Research on antecedents of Creative and Innovative team behaviors

Posted February 8, 2013 by Problem Solving Fire
Categories: Uncategorized

An Eye For Creativity and Innovation (for John Seah)

Seven Sins of Marketing

Posted September 18, 2011 by Problem Solving Fire
Categories: Uncategorized

  1. Arguing with the Customer
  2. Giving incorrect/inaccurate information
  3. Leave the customer guessing
  4. Treating customer as collateral
  5. Passing the buck
  6. Unethical Agenda
  7. Focus on selling and not on buying

Adding Innovation To Problem Solving

Posted September 4, 2011 by Problem Solving Fire
Categories: Uncategorized

Innovation is the best thing to add on to problem solving.

Stage 1.   Do The Thing Right.

Do you remember the days when Quality Gurus advised us to do the thing right?

In the 1950s, a good worker is one who can follow rules and work according to established procedures.  A good worker is one who is spot on, never misses a screw, never late for work, knows the complete sequence of switching on and off, achieves within the upper control limit and lower control limit.  Work excellence means knowing the steps well, perfecting the performance, and keeping track of all specs. Meeting customer requirements. Inspect, inspect and inspect again before shipping out.

All Problem Solving activities focused on finding out the five whys.  You begin with one why, then the next nested why, then another nested why, etc.  Why is the alignment out (?), why are pins missing (?), why defects happen (?), etc.

Statistical Quality Control was the driving force behind all Problem Solving activities.  Once the statistical tolerance level is established, factories operators, supervisors, managers get busy standardising processes, and finding out how to prevent deviations and maintain output consistency.  Then service organisations followed this quality ‘imperative’. Service companies try to get their people to smile right, dress right, greet right, colour right, deliver right, etc.  To their dismay, service is not repeatable.  Once service is provided, it vanishes and the next service cannot be the same as the last.  When the burger is served, hot and juicy; the next customer may complained that it is just too hot, and just to mushy.

To help create a spic-and-span workplace,  Japanese formulated the 3S then 5S, then 7S.  The aim was to perfect the control process.  If possible, “Do It Right First Time and Everytime!”

ISO9000, was the name of the game.


Stage 2.    Do The Right Thing.

Then in the late 1980s, there was a new revelation.  A revised and upgraded vision of management style came on.

It is good to be doing it right and according to expectations.  But then the big question is ‘What is the Expectation?”  What is the ‘Right’ thing.

Management must make sure the problem is indeed the right problem to tackle.  Quality Gurus argued that ‘Doing The Right Thing’ means more than ‘Doing the Thing Right’ because, it is useless to be good at doing the right things, unless the thing you are doing is indeed the right thing to do.  If it is not the right thing, then you should not even start it, let alone, perfect it.  The argument goes even further to say that whenever one keeps repeating what one is doing, and if that was the wrong thing, wrong results will actually multiply.

This approach created a problem for the ISO9000 philosophy.  ISO9000 emphasises that you “First, write down what is done, and second, make sure everyone does what is written down by setting up procedures.”   This approach, in fact seems to give everyone confidence in having a standard.  However, if it does not help to achieve the company’s mission, it does not make sense to spend resources to change anything to make it better.

But how can you be certain that your standard way is the best way?  In fact, once the process is established, should you not also find ways to make it simpler, cheaper, and faster.  Taken it further, there is really no such thing as just ‘Doing it Right First Time’, but if you want more results, you need to change the standards, the procedures to make it better.

Management must always relook at their performance indicators.  Even if the indicators used by the company are achieving of the objective(s) of the business, what about tomorrow, when the environment changes.  A new entrant into the market, new technology becomes available.  How should we revised our overall objectives? What is the next phase of our business?

Are the indicators still relevant? The next phase deals with the issue of relevance.   As every manager knows, ‘relevance’ is not a static concept – it begins and ends with ‘it depends’.   The Black and White TVs were relevant in the 60s, but today, it depends on whether you want a cheap monitor to just straining on something moving on the other side of the fence or are you using TV for entertaining yourself.  Then color LCD high resolution screens with stereophonic capabilities are what you want.


Stage 3.   Is this still the right thing?  

While stage 2 promises that one should not focus on just doing the thing right but also the right thing.  That was not all that the role of problem solving.  Problem solving must be redefined to have a heavier emphasis on change – or innovating.

Doing the Right Thing means that the team does problem solving ‘to get things done the best way’, innovation goes beyond doing the right thing.  Innovation asked the question: Even if it is right for us now, and how can this be even better?

Innovation is not satisfied with achieving targets, it is also not satisfied with achieving the right targets; it is asking what if we can change the target.  What are things which can be changed, and what systems had overstayed….iPhone… asked a different question from Nokia.  Is it still another phone that people want? Is it still another laptop that people needed?  Essentially, is this still the right thing for our clients??



Golden rule of motivation

Posted March 5, 2010 by Problem Solving Fire
Categories: System and Procedures, Team Excellence Symposium, Team Management, Uncategorized

“To increase motivation, create an atmosphere where people motivate themselves.” 

Dorothy Leeds, Author of ‘Smart Questions’


Give them a hand.

How true indeed that is for teams as well.  If you are a leader of your team, that is one rule you can do to help your members stay on and keep driving for results and work towards the target.  Create the environment that people can have the opportunity tovate themselves.

Here are the things which you should consider.

1.   Listen to them – do not jump to a conclusion before hearing the whole story.  Some are better at communicating while others speak slower.  However, even those more muddled in their presentation, we can be sure that they are have apoint to raise. 

Jack Welch conducts training for his managers, but he knows that he also learns lots through listening to the way they see the world.

Listening is one of the strenghts of Jack Welch.  He is known as one of the most successful CEOs of the century.  He grew his company 3,300% over 20 years, and those familiar always speak about how he respond to their questions, and pay attention to them.  Jack uses listening as one of his ways to motivate his managers. 

While conducting those thousands of ‘management training’ sessions, he listens intently to the feedback from the managers.   Managers who attended, benefited from the training but more importantly, they came away motivated.  The targets are hard targets.  They are to achieve these before the year is up.  Jack knows the stress they are under, and unless motivated, nothing can be achieved.  Nothing can be achieved without motivation. 

2.   Tolerate certain amount of digression during meetings – agenda is important but no one will support your agenda unless they find a way they can indeed contribute to it. 

Strength + Heart = Tolerance ~ Patience

If the agenda is not fully covered, there is still tomorrow, but once you shut them up too early they will remain shut.  Not that you need to give them a whole afternoon, but usually a three point agenda could be covered in 45 minutes to an hour. Once you have set the time, try not to shortchange them. 

3.   Give them due respect – King Arthur treated everyone as a member of the knights of the round-table.   King Arthur was not remembered for being an outstanding orator nor even a fantastic strategist.  What he did was to  show respect, and in return they respected him.  The table was said to be round to represent that each knight was of equal value to the king and thus there was no ‘head’ of the table.

Giving respect is something we all must learn

For King Authur, there is no head - all knights are equal

Are we suitable for Team Based Problem Solving (TBPS)

Posted November 20, 2009 by Problem Solving Fire
Categories: System and Procedures, Uncategorized

I have often been approached by managers wanting me to tell them whether TBPS is a system suitable for their company.  Here I have devised 13 simple statements for you to evaluate your company.

Answer them and if you  come off short, it simply means that some coaching and training for your colleagues would be good to come up to speed.

As with all the companies I have given assistance; the benefits far outweigh the cost in terms of time and other upfront preparation.  Instead of having to revert when you encounter the problems with TBPS implementation midway through the scheme; I have compiled these statements for you to do a self review on whether your company is suitable: 

Take this Self-Assessment Quiz

The decision to implement a TBPS scheme should be based on more than schedules, finances, or convenience.  The following questionnaire will help you evaluate your company’s potential to be a successful TBPS company.

Just response with True or False, there is a simple assessment of your responses at the end.

TBPS Projects are comprehensive treatment of problems and total involvment of employees in autonomous; yet guided methodology, brining about lasting and effective improvements to work processes and improving productivity for the company

TBPS projects benefits both the team members as well as improve the productivity fo the company

1.         The company has a basic believe to train employees in problem solving skills. 

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  

True. This is essential. The company can’t be effective in TBPS unless there is easy access to basic training on the essentials of problem solving methodology.  A common language must permeate throughout the company’s definition of what a problem is, what a solution is, how implementation and review are to be carried out and who are involved in the process at what stage of the project. The training course(s) on problem solving should be woven into their company’s general commitment to training policy.  Training should be done right from the time an employee joints the ranks. 



TBPS approaches a problem with the context in perspective

 2.    The company has a good basic leadership structure (method for appointment of leaders; assistant leaders and members are established)     

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  


True.  Management will save a lot of stress and time if they have developed and stnadardised a basic structure of leadership appointment and membership recruitment.  The success of the first project depends a lot on the basic identification of the leaders and the chosen project leaders must be able to command the confidence of the team members; whilst the members should also know how to reciprocate with support.


3.      Company is goal oriented.      

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  

True. Since a good deal of the projects are meant for enhancing the overall contribution to the productivity of the organization, there must be a certain clarity on the theme and goals of productivity.  Some companies have Key Performance Indicators as their first guideline to define the company goal. The bottom line? Until the management define what they want the teams will not be able to know what is expected and thus not able to achieve anything. Teams must be able to match their objective to the company’s goal.  


This is the Steven Covey 2 x 2 Matrix. Unfortunately, the priority for the TBPS project may land in the yellow quadrant (Not urgent, but important). Unless the team plans for it that project may drop into quadrant 4!


4.         Time management is a priority.

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  


True. The ability to manage time well may be the most important skill a team can possess. Procrastination is the worst enemy of the project. A good team should be able to set goals and priorities, have a plan for achieving them, and follow through. There is no substitute for good time management skills.   



The team must have some sense of empowerment to carry out basic decision.


5.      Teams are autonomously organize for their respective work responsibilities; they are given (1)  a ‘block of time’ for their project activities and (2) a different ‘block of time’ for routine or operational tasks. 

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  


True. While most teams would choose projects for the improvement of their work area, it is important that team members carve out blocks of time for their project activities, separating the time required for their routine and operational work.  Operational work is important to sustain the output at the minimum level, but the team must be given or allocated time during working hours to be engaged in creative project activities. Most teams will find the project time consuming at some stage of the project. All projects will require the leaders as well as the members put in some uninterrupted time each week to complete specific project task.  




The team must have a respect for deadlines. TBPS Projects are designed with timelines in mind. Success of the project is tied to others. Although it may seem that the projects are the less urgent, finishing ontime is still a success criteria

6.      Teams have no problems meeting deadlines.

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  


True. Supervisors are usually adamant about deadlines. If a team leader (or a majority of the members) is a habitual procrastinator, TBPS projects may not be appropriate for the team.  



7.      Teams will need guidance from the supervisor for many of its decisions from time to time.  

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  


True. While training and coaching on problem solving skills are often offered to leaders and team members so that they can grasp the fundamentals of team based problem solving, additional counselling, guidance and advice will still be needed.  Management must not assume that the work must be done autonomously.  If the team leader finds it difficult to proceed he should be comfortable to approach his supervisor(s) to make some of the decisions at any stage of the project.  


You need not be Bill, but his self-starter attitude is something we can learn from. I have seen projects that have made more then $500k in six months, which I think was better than what Bill achieved in his first 6 months!


8.      The good team leader is a natural self-starter who can attempt a task after receiving basic expectations, targets to achieve. 

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  

True.  A truly good team leader is able to get started on a project independently. More important, effective team leaders do not get greatly “disturbed” by problems but search out answers and struggle with them for a reasonable time before contacting their supervisors. 



9.      Teams learn well by discussion and experimentation.

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  

True.  Many solutions are found by trial and error, but behind the experiments, risk taking have already been mitigated and debated by everyone before the team takes any step forward.  Team members take the responsibility for failures and ensure that even if the risk are big, it should not be too big for the supervisor to handle.  That is why discussion and experimentation is taken in small steps; and these steps may be in new or radical direction.


If you do not know what to do next, go back to the question of : What is the worst that can happen; what is the maximum lost possible. Can the team live with that? If we lost can we make a come back?

10.     Team members understand exactly what they are going to achieve.

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  

True. If the team is going to take responsibilities, they should know the risks; and that comes with knowing with certainty what they are to achieve and if they do not achieve, what kind if risks to expect. This way they exercise critical analysis throughout the project.


11.        Team members are proficient in communication.

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  


True. Whether through written or spoken communication, members are expected to communicate their ideas, concerns and express their views with passion and intensity when the need arises.  Although it is desirable for rigorous debating session to be held during some team meetings, the leaders must be able to consolidate views and opinions in amicable directions for the next step to be taken. 



Never leave to chance. Plan the time of 1 – 2 hours a week for your project. That is the only way to make sure it gets going!


 12.     Team members are willing to devote 1 – 2 hours per week for each project.

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  


True. One myth about TBPS project is that as long as we have 80% attendance, the meeting should proceed and everything will be fine, for the absentee will catch up later. This should not be encouraged.  Most members who are responsible would find that besides the meeting engagements, they will also put in more time in order to carry out his/her assigned task during the meeting. Therefore, at a minimum, members must have approximately 4 hours per week per project that to concentrate on the project.



 13.     Team members are am willing to discuss the project with other colleagues outside the team proper.

Your Answer  :       TRUE    [       ]                         FALSE   [     ]  


Mostly True. Most projects are not necessarily independent and confidential studies. Some parts of the project may encroach into other divisions.  Many projects will require other colleagues to provide information, support and also endorsement during the experiments as well as during the course of implementation.  Therefore communication with colleagues outside the project team is often necessary.  Team members would do well to regularly discuss internally (intra-team) on how to effectively communicate with colleagues outside the project team; and even how to engage the correct people and level of participation of people outside the team.


Now rate your success.     Count the number of “True” you gave as you read the statements and compared against the actual situation you have back in your company.

8 to 10: Your company is probably a good candidate for TBPS.
Less than 8: You should consider some external assistance.



Posted October 27, 2009 by Problem Solving Fire
Categories: System and Procedures, Team Excellence Symposium, Team Management

Tags: , , , ,

The TEAM EXCELLENCE SYMPOSIUM is held twice a year in Singapore.  The  objective of the organiser is to provide a platform for problem solving teams to present their project and be graded by an independent panel of assessors.  After these presentation, the teams are asked pertinent questions for clarifications . 

There are many ways a team can benefit when they take part in the symposium.  Besides gaining some visibility on their success stories, the presenting teams will have a chance to validate their problem solving skill with specially trained and experienced process experts who form the assessors team.  As an assessor myself, I have also seen how the presentation build up the team members’ self-confidence; improve their intra-group bonding and co-operation, and increased the bonding between the supervisors and the team.   

The 25 September 2009 marks an important day for four teams from Hitachi Global Storage (Singapore).  Four teams took part in that national competition and all came up tops.  Imagine, three Golds and one Star!

Hitachi Results 2009

Team Excellence Symposium Results 2009 (Hitachi)

Assessors grade the projects based on their final reports and presentations by the team members.  A set of 10 criteria are used covering all aspects of the project.  To get a Star, a team need more than 850 points out of the maximum of 1,000 points.  The maximum points possible is given below:

  1. Project Selection (100 points)
  2. Target Setting (50 points)
  3. Problem Analysis (100 points)
  4. Effective Use of Tools (100 points)
  5. Solution Development (100 points)
  6. Solution Selection (100 points)
  7. Solution Implementation (100 points)
  8. Project Achievement (200 points)
  9. Sustainability (of solution results) (50 points)
  10. Overall Impact on Organisation (by the project) (100 points)
From experience, a Star is only given to the outstanding projects.  It usually falls on the top 3-5% of the cohort

From experience, a Star is only given to the outstanding projects. It usually falls on the top 3-5% of the cohort

In Hitachi, their team excellence projects started back in the 1980s.  During that time such activities were called SGAs (small Group Activities) or QC (Quality Circles).  This has become a way of life in Hitachi today.  

Gold Winner!

One of the teams that won Gold

Management had make it a corporate culture for people to solve work related problems in small groups.  To give it a framework, they have adopted the basic methodology as per the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle propounded by Dr Deming.  See my introduction of the PDCA in 12-steps in past posts (note : I have password protected it.  If you like to know more, send me an email and I will give you the password)

The philosophy behind the  SGA or QC is that when workers at the shopfloor conscientiously carry out their duties, they would know best how to carry out the daily operations.  This philosophy is easy to understand. 

Frontline operators who directly encounter whatever inconveniences will know them first hand, thus whenever there is an error or something that go wrong they immediately know it.   

However, being human, people are usually extremely adaptable.  Many times people will think on their feet and find a way to check the errors.  These ‘stop-gap’ measures may become permanent changes which goes un-noticed.


Most people can improvise if asked to, and will improvise to prevent suffering

The trouble is, many times people do not report it to their supervisor, and many minor adaptations, improvements and adjustments go unnoticed.  These could be very unique ways to prevent incorrect data entries, or they could be simple rules of thumbs to prevent slips or errors.  It could be just simple re-arrangment of layout to prevent surface scratches, spillages, cracks; or simple moving an item away from a heat source to prevent discolouration, material warps; or even straightening the path of heavy items after some near misses.  To me, these adaptations, improvisions, are burried treasures.

Of course, when someone suffers a burnt, cuts a finger, calls in sick because of a back injury, the ‘red-lights’ and ‘sirens’ comes on, and then the safety engineer/supervisor is alerted and rushes in to make an investigation and writes a report.  


Meanwhile, those tired fingers, blurry eyes, progressive back aches, etc are taken as part and parcel of necessary work (or labour!).  Work should not be hard to perform.


Working hard is necessary, but work should not be 'hard to perform'

I recalled a very good story told to us by our professor when I was at the business school.  This case happened at one of General Motor’s plants.  The General Motor Quality Assurance Engineer was puzzled when the windscreen on their new vehicle leaked after a few weeks. 

Logically, the first atep is to look through the manual to make sure that things are systematically and scientifically reasonable.  Next, he compared what the worker was doing against the procedures.  He found no discrepancy.   The worker was doing exactly what was stated in the manual to the letter. 

Then he reviewed several records of similar cases and realised that there was a surge in the number of cases after a certain date.  After eliminating many possibilities, he found that that was the time the old worker retired and he was replaced by a newly trained employee.  The instruction manual had not changed, and the new worker was doing exactly what is required.  

fitting windscreen

Fitting the windscreen according to standard procedure given in the Instruction Manual is still not good enough?

Finally, in desperation, he decided to invite the ex-worker back to check with him.  After tracking him down, to a beach resort, where he had taken a month-long vacation with his family, they managed to ‘consult’ him. 

Guess what. 

follow blindly

Although many supervisors accused their reports that they followed blindly, the reality is that most people do not follow blindly! They change to suit to what is better. But not all tell their bosses about it.

The retired worker proudly told the QA Engineer that, “Many years ago when I joined GM, I realised that when I followed exactly what the manual tells me, step by step, I had many complaints about leaks.  So this is how I did it.  I did this first and then this ……. and the leaks disappear.  Since then I had been doing it that way.”  


This classic silent movie satirized the 'production factory' of the 1930s. Charlie Chaplin depicts a worker as a 'cog' in the big production machine.

While standardised procedures and processes as well as establishing systems are important, what is more important is to know that, the micro-elements of every procedure really rest with the worker.  The workers are directly involved in the operational work. 

Food inspection procedure

Government food inspection procedures (important, but is it effective??)

Adaptations, adjustments and further improvements should always be encouraged.  The QC activties and projects allow employees to study the problem more systematically; it allows trials to be carried out; measurements on success factors can be isolated and the best combination consolidated.  Using the many brains of the team working, reflecting from various angles, the best solution can be package, tested and implemented.  Such is the philosophy of QC projects. 
In the next few post I will briefly share with you the improvements of these four teams.