Lowering the water level is a well known image to describe how we can start problem solving in order to eliminate waste and improve processes. If we lower the water level, the rocks occur that represent both the hidden costs and hidden ressources in people or inventory. Quickly we think the image is easy to understand. But this doesn't mean we know what this image exactly describes.
Lowering the water level reveals the problems. In order to solve the problems, we have to understand the problem. By experimenting we learn until the rocks disappear. If we learn, we move from data to information to knowing and at the end to acting accordingly. We move from symbols to understanding to involvement and at the end we change our behaviour.
If we look at the image, we maybe see a technical solution but we often miss that people only learn, if they are so deeply involved that they start changing their behaviour at the end. In books this is described as people have to leave the comfort zone. But in any case that means that emotions and feelings have to occur. There is shock, anger, sadness, hope and so on. All this is necessary to become a new identity. All this is part of learning something new. All this has to taken into account especially by management if we lower the water level.
Lowering the water level is not an academic approach, it`s not only a technical question or problem solving excercise, it's change management in any case. What ever you want to change, in the beginning people have to be emotionally involved, at the end there are people who have to change their behaviour. Otherwise learning didn't take place. And there is no shortcut.
If you lower the water level people become involved, feelings occur and change management starts. As a leader you have to accompagny the process accordingly. In the following two examples are given for lowering the water level. And in both examples besides the aspect, if the technical problem was solved, the question is - does someone learn out of this experience? And furthermore - did the organization learn?
In the first example an assembly line for electronic products was changed. 15 operators were working in this line. Conceptually this line should be able to work only with 9 operators. But for years a lot of maintenance and quality issues weren't be solved. In a two day Kaizen workshop the situation was analysed and at the end of the Kaizen it was decided that 6 operators have to leave at once. The output should be the same. The line became modified. Conveyors were installed. But the underlying problems couldn't be solved during the event. All additional necessary actions should be solved during the next 30days.
In order that this can happen a daily genba meeting with all necessary departments took place in the morning for 20 minutes. Participants were the operators, manufacturing engineers, logistics, quality and maintenance.
The water level was lowered by taking out the people. Now the problem solving should happen. But in the beginning besides the technical questions the operators were shocked. They were crying and shouting and complaining. They lost colleagues, should show the same output and the problems weren't solved. The engineers were unsatisfied because they couldn't believe to solve the problems during a few days if it was not possible for years. The plant manager had to stay calm, don't go back, show clear direction and a lot of understanding for the feelings and emotions. Every morning the plant manger had to call the supportive functions in order to review the activities, the output of yesterday and the plan for the actual day. Three weeks all actions didn't move the needle. Then unexpected and suddenly in week number 4 the output of the assembly line increased by 30% compared to the starting point with 40% less operators. It was an incredible result.
The question is - who has lerned out of this something? The technical problems were solved. The output of the line had increased dramatically. The plant manager had a better understanding of what is behind the idea of lowering the water level. But were the operators involved? Were the engineers involved? Did management share the objectives? Were the approach aligned? Did people change behaviour after the event? And did participants share their lessons learnt afterwards? Not a single question can answered by yes because there was fear, force and facts but no relate, reframe or repeat (Alan Deutschman).
In the second example an assembly line for diesel engines with 45 linked assembly stations was objective of lowering the water level. One section of this assembly line of 6 stations was controlled by a small group of operators and the group leader. This section was the bottleneck of the assembly line and herewith the constraint for the achievable tact of the line. Besides this technical question the group leader showed a good development. He was shortly named as a group leder but showed a empathic contact to the operators and a good understanding for the technical questions in ths assembly area.
The first question how can the bottleneck be eliminated in this area? The second question was how can the group leader be challenged in a way to develop and to learn? Because of the good relationship the group leader has build with his team it was decided to give him the task to reduce the cycle time of his bottleneck area by 20% in 6 weeks. It was also decided that the group leader gets the task with no further explanation in the beginnig. That was decided consciously in order to throw the group leader into the cold water.
In the evening the group leader showed up and explained to management that he doesn't know what to do, how to do and that he is afraid not to succeed. Management explained to him that they will show up in his area every evening in order to see progress, the action plan, next steps and in order to support him if necessary.
The next days the group leader and the team members asked every evening for support from manufacturing engineering, logistics and quality. Management gave them all they were asking for. Logistics, engineering and quality had to support. After a few days the content of the meeting changed. The group made the experience that they were supported, that management came back every evening. They became more comfortable with the situation and started to show own ideas, steps, experiments and solutions. They experimented with different approaches and tracked the impact on the cycle time. It took 6 weeks by experimenting this way and afterwards the cycle time was reduced by 30%.
Again the question - who did learn something in this example?
In both cases management learned something about what is possible and what will happen with people if the water level is lowered. In the first example the organization and the people didn't learn anything out of it. Because after the storm was over behaviour long term was same. In the second example the group leader and the team learned a lot because they introduced the solutions by themselves and got support from management. Also the organization learned because the example was shared with people and other mangement teams. It was discussed afterwards what happened, what worked and how did the group overcome the obstacles as a team. Furthermore management discussed with the group leader what he did, how he did it, why and how he felt about. And that made a difference (relate, reframe, repeat).