Effective Problem Solving

For anyone who has worked in the product or service industries for any length of time, it’s a safe bet that you’ve encountered situations in which problems, once thought to be resolved, resurfaced later. When attempting to solve problems, it’s not unusual to have the problems repeat to the point it seems that you’re dealing with multiple issues, when there may be only one primary cause.

There are important things to remember about problems: they happen all the time; they may have more than one root cause; systems, not people, are generally to blame; they are opportunities to improve. Problems actually provide us with information that can be used to fix what needs to be corrected so the organization can improve its profitability. With this in mind, we can almost begin to welcome problems!

If the primary cause can be isolated and resolved properly, three things can be accomplished. First, resources which have been previously wasted in resolving the problem can be eliminated, saving significant expense. Second, sustainable improvement in the organization is created. Third, an atmosphere of improvement begins to be fostered as a way of life. In order to achieve these outcomes, team members should be well-trained and guided toward finding permanent corrective actions for the problems they are addressing, now and in the future.

There are many basic problem-solving steps adopted by companies, while others develop their own approach. Essentially, any formal methodology can be effective if the process is rigorously followed. Here are a few fundamental considerations for organizations to be successful, regardless of the specific problem-solving process adopted:

  1. Don’t focus on the symptoms. Organizations often make the mistake of reacting to the symptoms, which are most visible. But it’s not enough for managers to scream, “We need better quality!” to resolve problems. If it were that simple, the problem would have been solved long before. Instead, we must peel away the symptoms to get to the root cause. One tool that can be helpful is the “5 Whys” technique—asking “why?” to each question and drilling down until the root cause is identified. There can be one, multiple or interrelated root causes to any particular issue.  
  2. Containment isn’t resolution. As soon as a problem surfaces, everyone should be alerted to raise awareness. Those affected should work together to identify a short-term strategy for making sure the problem doesn’t escape the immediate area, while permanent corrective actions are developed and verified. All too often, this temporary action can remain in place far too long while other emerging issues are addressed. Instead, use the containment action to prevent problems from becoming tragedies, but don’t allow containment to remain in place without implementing permanent corrective action.
  3. Resolve the root cause(s). Root causes must be resolved to prevent the problem from recurring. If we only address one root cause of a problem with multiple causes, the problem will resurface at some point. At times, when the problem recurs it may change slightly so that it’s considered a new or different problem, which can confuse the issue. When a diligent effort has been made to conduct a thorough root cause analysis, all the root causes should be recorded on a cause-and-effect diagram. Implement actions to address each cause to ensure the problem never resurfaces.
  4. Assess the action. When a problem has been addressed and considered resolved, there should be periodic assessment of the resolution to ensure the issue has been truly fixed. A post-mortem audit should also be conducted to understand why the things that functioned properly were effective and why failures were ineffective. Many organizations aren’t consistent or rigorous with this step and overlook it often. Don’t make the same mistake. This needs to be done with trained personnel who will focus on the process.
  5. Don’t be too quick to readjust. After a process has been changed to solve a problem, there is a tendency for management to call for immediate adjustments if the issue resurfaces. It’s not unusual that the cycle time to incorporate solutions is longer than the frequency of emergence. In other words, while the problem was being solved with a process change, other problems occurred that escaped the containment strategy—particularly if all root causes were not yet understood. It is imperative to identify which symptoms occurred because of failed containment and which occurred because the new process is still defective. Remain focused on the root cause of the problem for final resolution.

To summarize, it is less important exactly which problem-solving process is adopted, as long as a few fundamental concepts are maintained. By carefully solving the problems within our organizations, it is possible to consistently improve profitability and create more output with fewer resources. It’s possible to create an atmosphere of an improvement culture that’s essential to doing a great (or at least a credible) job of problem-solving—every time. iBi

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