The Problem with Problems: Methods and Tools for Problem-Solving, Part 1

The Problem with Problems: Methods and Tools for Problem-Solving, Part 1

By Bob Sproull

This begins a new series on solving problems in the workplace. No matter the size of a company, problems are an inherent part of the landscape. The key, though, is in how you approach the problems and then solve them. In this series, I will equip you with some problem-solving skills that will help you eliminate them more effectively.

Problems are all around us in the workplace. We all know when we have one because we can feel and experience a chilling presence, especially if it is a serious, costly problem. We feel pressure to act decisively, but if we don’t have appropriate problem-solving tools at our disposal, our responses can be counterproductive.

You’ll have to answer to your own pressure

Perhaps we’re getting pressure from the boss who tells us to “do something and do it quickly!”  Or maybe we’re receiving emails or telephone calls from customers with deadlines and potential penalties if we don’t fix them.  Whatever the source of pressure, the typical response for many of us is to start making changes and hope for the best. It is not unusual for many of us to make blind adjustments to otherwise stable processes, without understanding the simple cause and effect relationships. The bottom line is that many of us respond to pressure with haste, and later regret the decisions we made under fire.

Collect yourself and identify the problem

Making unnecessary or unwarranted process changes is the worst reaction to pressure, because that ultimately creates a more complex problem to solve. That’s the problem with problems—they have a tendency to change our behaviors and make us respond impulsively rather than rationally and judiciously. This can be resolved, however, with a problem-solving toolkit that can help us to identify and root out causes, and then take appropriate corrective measures. The antidote to sudden pressure isn’t a swift response; it is deliberate, methodical action.

Two primary types of problems require distinct approaches 

Change-related problems:  Performance is at a certain level and then a change occurs somewhere in the process, which changes the performance level.  Although it may not be obvious, when you are faced with a change-related problem, the focus should always be on what changed and when it changed. Therefore, the key to solving change-related problems is to search for the initial catalyst.

Launch-related problem: This kind of problem has plagued us since day one—or launch. It could be the launch of a new machine identical to one already in place—since its start-up, it has never operated quite like the other one. Maybe the supplier of a raw material has two factories and product received from one factory has consistently outperformed the other. If we are to solve the launch-type problem, then we must find the critical distinctions between the two objects and take actions that are specifically aimed at eliminating the differences.

Now that we see the differences between a change-related problem and a launch-related problem you might ask if both problems can occur simultaneously, mutually exacerbating one another. The answer is a resounding “yes!” When you have this situation in play, you must methodically find the differences between the two problems and then determine what changed.

No problem can be solved without preparation. In this series, I will present and explain four problem-solving tools that can be used to answer specific questions that lead to identifying and resolving problems at their sources.

Bob Sproull

About the author

Bob Sproull has helped businesses across the manufacturing spectrum improve their operations for more than 40 years.

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