How to Effectively Solve Problems Like a Pro

How to Effectively Solve Problems Like a Pro

Are you the best problem solver that you can be?  Do you want to improve your problem solving skills?  There are lots of problem solving techniques and I am particularly fond of the PDCA cycle myself (Plan-Do-Check-Act), but there are many others that might be your “go to” technique.  To better understand these methods, I’d like to call attention to the opposite method.  I like to call it the: “shoot from the hip, in the dark, drunk, dizzy, blindfolded with a broken trigger finger technique”.  Ok, I’ll tone it down a bit and we’ll call it “shoot from the hip”.

I want you to think back to a time (and I know you can) where somebody approached a situation without completely understanding it and said, “well, the problem is blah, blah, blah and the solution is blah, blah, blah“.  If that solution actually got implemented, what was the outcome?  I can tell you that I’ve not only witnessed it, but I’m sure I’ve actually done damage with that type of activity.

As a manufacturing leader, I felt that it was important for me to appear that I always had the answer to every question.  Although this seemed to buy me some time by displaying confident leadership, I was doing things without knowing if they were right or wrong, but I was doing things!  As I look back, a lot of those things were actually incorrect and probably caused more damage than I’d intended to.

Fortunately, I found structured problem solving.  Whether you are trained in Lean, or Six Sigma or practice PDCA, DMIAC, 8D, Quality Circle Steps, etc., you know there are some key elements to problem solving.  Here are some fundamental steps that I have always found to be trustworthy:

First: Define your objective.  Let’s say your company has a paint department and they have a lot of defects.   Don’t make the statement, “well, the problem is the paint spray guns are bad and we need to buy new ones”.  Instead, state the objective: “We need to reduce the amount of paint defects”.  Clarify the objective, but don’t jump to conclusions and assume you have the answer.

Second:  Understand the Situation.  How do you know the guns are bad?  Do you know what all of the defects are, what the frequency is, where they are occurring?  Have you tried recreating the defects, have you interviewed the employees, have you gone to the actual site of the defects and examined it?

Third: Identify the root cause.  Maybe the defects do have something to do with the spray guns malfunctioning.  Why is the spray gun malfunctioning?  Maybe it’s because a valve is sticking.  Why is the valve sticking? Maybe because paint is getting trapped in a chamber.  Why is paint getting trapped in a chamber?  Maybe because after it sits for an extended amount of time, the paint hardens and blocks a drain hole.  Now you have understood more about the real cause by asking “Why”.

Fourth: Form a Countermeasure that addresses the root cause that achieves the objective.  “We will implement a weekly cleaning program every Monday morning and the chamber will be emptied and cleaned with the appropriate chemical.”  For help on this, click here.

Fifth: Confirm that your countermeasure eliminated the root cause and achieved the objective.  “After doing the weekly cleaning, we were able to keep the chamber from getting clogged, which prevented the spray gun from malfunctioning.  Since we began this, we have had no more defects in the paint department that relate to the spray gun.”

Do you see how this is better than shooting from the hip?  I can tell you that I have witnessed a lot of failed problem solving attempts due to not doing one of these things.  I always encourage people to commit to learning a structured problem solving technique and I guarantee you, you will be happy you did.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I guarantee that you will correctly solve every problem on the first attempt.  Part of problem solving is testing, failing, learning, adjusting and trying again, but if you shoot from the hip, it is easily to be reckless and miss your mark or do more damage than good.

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