The Business Improvement Network

The Problem with Problem solving

By Stuart Mitton

Stuart Mitton2

Leaders often see problems as exactly that – something that prevented a target being achieved. So, then the witch hunt begins. Rather than applying the 5Whys, it becomes the 5Who’s!

These are often evidenced by seeing or hearing; (and this is not an exhaustive list by the way!)

“Who was responsible?”

“This is the ‘umpteenth’ time that's happened”

“Why didn't anyone know about it”

“I don't care, just get it fixed”

No documented evidence of the standard

People acting on emotion and not facts

Do you ever hear yourself saying these things?

These behaviours actually drive a culture of fear and can cause problems to remain hidden or, pop up at the least opportune moments.

So how do we overcome these issues?

Firstly, let’s look at the definition of a problem. My definition is this; ‘Any deviation from Standard or expectation’

Yet as leaders, we seldom encourage the creation of standards and expectations are usually defined as a number. Often with the latter, its usually too late when we discover at the end of shift, we are short of 200 packs for the order!

Secondly, the lack of a structured problem-solving process. This causes a scatter gun approach and discourages creative thinking. Often, an ‘expert’ is left to find a solution on their own, for example, The Quality Manager is tasked with finding the root cause and everyone else moves on to the next fire to extinguish.

Thirdly, the time pressures. This is where the lack of understanding of the value of a containment action comes to the fore. A containment is an agreed temporary solution to allow us the time to investigate thoroughly and find the root cause. Once the Root cause is proven and eliminated, the containment is removed.

Let’s look at two of the common problem-solving methodologies I coach my within my client’s organisations.

The 4C (Concern, Containment, Countermeasure and Confirmation)

The 4C is a basic problem-solving tool, with an emphasis on daily activity

Its aimed at work group level and coached by the first line managers.

It is designed to provide a structured and scientific way of thinking to find the root cause of typical day to day problems (I try to encourage a 24/48hr maximum timeframe for resolution)

Here is the structure of the 4C process

Step 1 - Clearly define the problem (often a challenge in itself) avoid vague or emotional statements, use facts

Step 2 List the concern(s) – be specific, be prepared to investigate each concern separately if necessary and the Ishikawa diagram is a great tool to use here.

Step 3 Agree the containment action and the duration the containment will be in place, for example, we will implement a 100% inspection for the next 48 hours.

Once the direct causes and investigated thoroughly (Using the 5 Why questioning technique)

Step 4, Implementation of the countermeasure and confirmation plan can now be actioned.

This is an ideal tool for leaders to coach on a daily basis, developing the habit and routine for basic problem investigation and resolution

More complex problems will be triggered for Escalation by the 4C process and this is where we use the more scientific 9 Step Problem solving methodology.

Team Orientated Problem Solving (TOPS)

This is the 9 Step process and is used for more complex issues. This will often require the team to gather data to understand a deeper-rooted problem. (I say this method is ideal for more challenging problems, often where data collection takes time and should be completed in no longer than 12 weeks)

Step 1 – Define the problem, a well-defined problem is halfway to being solved. Again, use facts and avoid subjectivity and emotion

Step 2 - Quantify the Current condition – Here the use of the 7 Quality tools are used to gain a greater understanding of the current condition. It’s essential for leaders to use GO LOOK SEE and where possible and compare the performance or issue to the standard or expectation

Step 3 – Set target condition – Its important here to recognise if there is a large gap in performance, we may need to set interim targets or flight path to allow us to work towards the target condition in smaller and more manageable steps

Step 4 – Locate the point of cause and containment the point of cause is where the problem first becomes apparent this helps us to narrow the scope of our investigation and containment, we have covered in the 4C

Step 5 – Cause investigation and Investigation – Identify the possible causes by using an appropriate tool (usually a Fishbone diagram) and involving an experienced team of people. Investigate the prioritised possible causes generated from the fishbone, allocate responsibilities, agree timing, confirm condition by Go Look See take pictures or establish evidence of concerns and identify the Direct Cause/Causes

Step 6 – Root Cause Investigation - The Root Cause is the key element of the problem, which when resolved will prevent re-occurrence. The tool used to identify the Root Cause is the “5 Whys”. In theory this appears to be the simplest of techniques, but in reality, it takes a lot of practice to master this thinking way

Step 7 – Root Cause countermeasure plan - How do we make the root cause go away for good? What are suitable most practical and effective countermeasures to eliminate the root cause? What is the best countermeasure? (perform evaluation) Do the countermeasures achieve the objective? How will we measure the improvement? For how long would we check it? When would we remove the containment? Create a clear and detailed action plan including What, Who, When

Step 8 – Follow up, check and confirm effective - What data do we need to collect? For how long? Who collects it? How is it reported? Has the objective been achieved? Have the results been shared with all members involved? Are the reasons for success or failure been understood? Is the problem sustainably solved? Track in graphical format to show the improvement in performance against the project objective.

Step 9 – Standardise and share the learning - What has to be changed in the current environment to establish the new process as a new standard Can this new process be used elsewhere? Modify standard operating procedures. Modify Job instructions. Support training. Share best practice and learning.

The 7 golden rules for the Leaders role in Problem Solving

  1. The Leaders role is to COACH not FIX
  1. Problem solving must be methodical & scientific to understand phenomena, cause & effect and prove the cause, enabling the elimination of the root cause
  1. Leaders and Managers should encourage systematic problem solving to develop the skill and thinking way of their people
  1. Leaders and Managers should evaluate people’s competency of systematic problem solving by asking questions and using questions to check and guide the way the team is thinking
  1. Leaders and Managers should go to the problem area to understand & help people in defining the problem and using routine approach
  1. Routine repetitive problem solving using the scientific method develops critical thinking and high-level systems thinking skills
  1. The emphasis on solving the problem is not as important as HOW you got to the solution

I hope you have enjoyed this article, I wish you every success in leading problem solving in your organisations and I leave you with this quote;

“I never teach my pupils; I provide the conditions in which they can learn”

Albert Einstein 1879-1955

About the author

Stuart is a Mechanical Engineer who has spent 30 years helping organisations all over the world to improve productivity and performance through the engagement of people. In his spare time, he collects and restores vintage fishing tackle and tries to use it effectively on the riverbank.

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