Capability 2 – Problem Solving

I am an analytic by nature, and with my Engineering education, I considered myself a “Problem Solver” very early on in my professional career. Only years after many failures and some successes have I really come to understand what effective “problem solving” really entails.  I learned that too often organizations place entirely too much emphasis on the outcome or end result, and as a consequence reinforce the wrong types of behavior – the "Just figure it out, make it work, get it done yesterday, work around problems" mentality tends to dominate this type of organization. I’m in no way saying that results are not important, but we all know that in order to survive and thrive in today’s fast-paced business world, organizations must show results in the form of profitable growth, usually quarterly, to appease stockholders as well as wall street. I am suggesting, though, that there is no short-cutting proper problem solving methodology for long term profitable organizational growth.

This does not mean that every problem requires a detailed six month long 6 sigma black belt project methodology to resolve.  The methodology I am suggesting can be applied to any size problem, whether it’s a two-minute experiment or a two year project.  I am further suggesting that the more two-minute experiments the organization can execute throughout all levels of the organization the more profitable it will become in the long term.  In this case it is about quantity rather than quality.

From my previous blog, once work is highly specified, it naturally helps you identify issues and abnormalities as they occur in real time.  The next step is to effectively go about resolving the problem.  Too often, teams spend hours, if not days, in conference rooms discussing and attempting to solve problems that have occurred at some point of time in the past.  This approach often leads to incomplete solutions, as usually not all details are truly understood by the team attempting to put a solution in place.  High velocity organizations develop and teach an effective problem solving behavior called “genchi gembutsu”, simply translated to “go see” at the source, on the production floor, in real time.  This “swarming of the problem" approach helps to uncover potential hidden details about the entire process, therefore increasing the odds of an effective solution and increased organizational learning. 

This approach also provides an opportunity for the problem solver to develop a relationship with the Operator or end user, who is really the process expert.  The stronger the relationship between problem solver and Operator, the more effective detail can be learned about the problem.  An Operator that has developed a strong level of trust in you is more likely to divulge hidden details about their work process.

The final key attribute of effective problem solving is always using the scientific method.  I mentioned earlier that many two-minute problem solving experiments may be more valuable than just a few long term scope projects.  This, in my opinion, is only true if we are consistent in the problem solving methodology we use so that we are able to continuously build on new knowledge. This is where “how” you solve a problem is more important than “what” problem you solve.  Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control (DMAIC) or Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) are two common scientific problem solving methods that can be used to approach any type of problem.  Consistently applying any of these scientific methods in problem solving ensures a repeatable thought process that may not always immediately solve the problem at hand but enables an organization to systemically build on previous knowledge, ultimately solving the problem and leading to breakthroughs, such as the cure for small pox or even cancer.  The more often this scientific experimental methodology is exercised, the more likely an organization is to truly solve problems and keep them from returning.

An often alarming symptom of using this high volume experiment approach is that it creates a somewhat out-of-control environment, as processes are constantly being changed and tinkered with.  One key to help and reduce some of this impact is to test theories in the least obtrusive manner possible in order to first prove out a concept.  I call this the "tape, fasten, weld" approach in our experimental method, meaning we first prove out the modification by temporarily taping it in place and only after we have validated the solution do we proceed to permanently “weld” it in place.

Once in place, an effective problem solving and knowledge capturing organization can start focusing on how to effectively share this knowledge across the organization.  This would be our third Capability of a high velocity organization.  To be continued….