4 Warning Signs Your Problem Solving Effort is Going Off Track

by Scott Whitbread and Erik Fogg

At Stroud, we say that problem-solving is an art--not because it is unscientific, but because you cannot simply follow a rote structure and consistently solve hard problems in your operations. The quality defects, the output restrictions, and the customer service issues that have defied multiple guessing campaigns require attentive, thoughtful application of the right problem solving behaviors. It helps to lean on the structure of a strong problem solving method, but it cannot replace your critical thinking and willpower to determine the root cause. With hard problems, you are always blazing a trail through a forest of uncertainty.

It is therefore likely that at some point when you are solving a hard problem, you will get off track. This is even true even for experienced problem solvers with many past success.

While getting off-track is to be expected, getting back on track quickly is part of the art of great problem solving. Knowing how to spot when you’re going off track, and knowing what to do, can be the difference between rapid results and weeks, months, or years of frustration. Heed these four warning signs and you're more likely to right the ship before you veer too far off course.

You’re Guessing Again

As you're closely investigating your problem and developing a strong problem description, you’re likely to develop new insights. These will often feel like beacons in the darkness. Even though you know guessing is fruitless, the brain will be quick to begin guessing again now that it has new information: the problem has become clearer, so a guess may now feel like a sufficiently informed conclusion (hint: it usually isn’t).

When this happens, the first step is to simply acknowledge that it’s happening. When you realize the ideas popping into your head are indeed guesses, you’re in a much better position to be able to let them go, rather than cling to them. Once you’ve done that, reorient your mind to ask questions rather than look for solutions. The insight you’ve developed will help you to come up with better questions to ask about the problem which will accelerate the problem solving effort.

Analysis for its Own Sake

Some people do a great job of not guessing, and instead they naturally tend towards being investigators. With hard problems, this tendency will yield much more than would simple guessing. However, if investigation becomes undirected, it can quickly become a hiding place, where the problem solver has created an illusion of progress. Hard problems typically exist within very complex systems. They might be reporting hundreds of data streams or have thousands of different parts that could be misbehaving. If you try to fully understand all of these, you are simply replacing guessing with examining every strand of hay in the stack to find the needle.

To get out of this analysis paralysis, you can step back and lean on some very specific questions to ask. These questions will direct your investigation to look at what is relevant, rather than look at everything. If you’re stuck, try asking one or more of the following questions about your problem:

  1. What does the problem, or a failure, look like? Be detailed.

  2. When did the problem begin?

  3. How often does the problem occur?

  4. Where does the problem first occur?

  5. When / where don’t you see the problem?

Punting to an Expert

As problem solvers run into complexity, it’s common to bring in subject matter experts. These can be external to the organization--such as vendors or scientists. But they can also be internal: operators, maintenance workers, engineers, and QA technicians are all experts of a sort. They can help you make substantial leaps forward in your problem solving efforts if you ask the right questions.

However, when problem solvers become intimidated by what’s ahead of them,they often want to delegate to somebody that seems to know what to do. However your experts--while highly capable in their specific field--are not necessarily strong problem solvers. They will often use their experience or institutional knowledge to make a better guess about the problem than you might do yourself. But for hard problems, this will be insufficient. Experience and institutional knowledge cannot substitute for the new information that is necessary to determine root cause.

If you find yourself intimidated and tempted to hand over problem solving to an expert, or hope that your institutional knowledge is sufficient, instead consider the source of the intimidation. Is the system sufficiently complex that you don’t understand it? Indeed bring in an expert, and ask them questions to explain to you how it’s meant to work. Are you having trouble finding out how to get the data you need to understand the problem? You can also get an expert’s help here by asking them how to get that information, or an indicator that approximates that information. Experts can be very helpful when you’re stuck--just don’t ask them to take the responsibility for solving the problem off your hands.

Expecting the Solution to do the Problem Solving for You

Once you’ve isolated the source of the problem to a certain part of the process, it can be tempting to think that the job is done. Perhaps you learn that a certain operating parameter is varying out of spec, or that operators are mis-using a piece of equipment. When you have isolated the problem, it can be tempting to start developing a solution right away.

You might be tempted to implement a Statistical Process Control Program to minimize the wayward operating parameter’s variations. Or perhaps there’s an equipment upgrade that will do this for you. For the operators who are using the equipment incorrectly, you may propose a new management structure or a back-to-basics training program. However, these are all highly complex “solutions” to problems that have yet to be fully understood.

Why is the operating parameter varying? Why are the operators electing to use the equipment in a manner contrary to protocol? These problems are only half solved. Further probing and investigation is required to discover the most basic, and therefore easily correctable, root cause. A solution that directly impacts the root cause will have the lowest cost and require the least management complexity to implement.

If your proposed solution requires spending a lot of money or includes lots of new management rigmarole, it’s time to take a step back. Ask yourself: do I know exactly why the problem is behaving the way it is? Can I explain what occurred to cause the problem in the first place? If the answer is no, then it’s time to get your problem solving investigation back on track.

 

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