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The Right Way to Resolve a Problem May 4, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Quality.
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Problem solving can be fun, in the way that solving crossword puzzles can be fun (or, at least interesting and challenging), but at work there’s a tendency to rush the process and make mistakes, and that’s not fun. This is especially true when there’s a highly visible cost associated with the unsolved problem. As time passes and the cost increases, educated and experienced people from all corners of the organization will offer solutions, and those responsible for fixing the problem will feel pressure to try something (and keep trying) until things improve, however temporarily.

I understand the value of experimentation and trial-and-error (fail early and often), and the danger of “analysis paralysis,” but problem resolution really should follow a rigorous process to minimize the number of false starts and false hopes. It’s great to get inputs from a variety of sources about possible root causes and solutions, but it’s worth spending just a little time to understand the situation. Was there a time or were there circumstances when this problem did not exist? Why is this happening now and not at some other time? Why is this happening here and not at some other place?

At the factory in China we called this the “is / is-not list.” If production line was shut down because of a quality problem, the first thing we did was describe and thereby isolate the circumstances. For example, it was important to know whether the problem occurred on this product, but not that one; with this part, but not that one; with parts from this supplier, but not that supplier; in this building or assembly line or shift or lot of material, but not others. These and other clues helped us quickly identify probable root causes and assess any proposed solutions, all before testing the solutions on a small scale to verify the result.

It’s also important to understand what improvement looks like and how that will be measured. At the factory it was easy to quickly determine whether there was an improvement from physical measurements or test results, but in other settings the feedback loop can be long and delayed, making it harder to verify that proposed solutions have the intended positive result. Regardless, it’s a lot easier to get agreement from stakeholders about the desired end state before the problem resolution process begins.

Trying to resolve a problem by jumping to conclusions without structured analysis and planning up-front invariably leads to ineffective solutions and wasted time.

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Comments»

1. Veneeta - May 7, 2012

Thanks for the article. For me, the most critical aspect of solving a problem is making the time to think…really think. Often times, we are running around to address multiple fires every day.


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