Manufacturing ERP Software
Manufacturing Processes—Production and Business:  Problem Solving, Part 2

Manufacturing Processes—Production and Business: Problem Solving, Part 2

By Bob Sproull

Review of Problem Solving in Manufacturing Processes, Part 1

In my last post we began our discussion by defining a problem as a deviation from expected performance that satisfies one or more of the following requirements:

  1. It must be detrimental to the organization.
  2. Its cause is unknown.
  3. Its root cause and solution are known, but the solution is not feasible in cost or time.

 I presented the following graphic to illustrate how problems should be viewed: 


I concluded Part 1 with two problem solving truths:

  • Truth 1: A problem is the direct result of a change that occurred prior to a new performance level.
  • Truth 2: A deviation in performance becomes a problem when one of these conditions applies: 1) it adversely affects the organization, 2) the root cause is unknown or 3) it costs too much or takes too much time to fix.

In today’s post, we will explore lean problem-solving skills and why it is imperative to employ a structured approach to solving problems.

The psychology of teaching problem-solving skills for manufacturing processes

From my first- and second-hand experience, I have learned that most people feel a sense of excitement when they solve a problem. I have investigated the cause and found that a physiological response underlies this effect. When people feel excited following their accomplishments, their brains emits chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are the purest opiate in the world and their release produces a natural “high.” Excitement levels generally seem proportionate to the size and complexity of the problem, and to the severity of the problem as perceived by people within the organization.  

This explanation begs a question: If people feel so satisfied when they solve problems, why do so many seek to avoid problem-solving challenges in the first place? [1] Kepner and Tregoe tell us that the answer depends on the presence of one or more of the following four conditions:

  1. People lack the right problem-solving skills.
  2. People haven’t experienced prior problem-solving success.
  3. People haven’t been positively reinforced when they have successfully solved problems.
  4. People are afraid to fail.

Why do so many of the most competent people lack the right problem-solving skills for the challenges they face? Judging from my experience, the answer lies in the level of training they have received. General problem-solving skills and a toolbox of specific situational problem-solving techniques are rarely taught in the American educational curriculum. That leaves people with the strongest logic and reasoning skills to develop their own problem-solving strategies as needs arise. For everyone else, problem-solving training in the workplace is essential.

Two participants in one of my workshops had worked for their company for 27 years each, yet had never received any such training on problem solving. [1] Kepner and Tregoe tell us that some people are afraid to fail, so they avoid attempting to solve problems. Why are they afraid to fail? For many, the avoidance is a conditioned response.

Consider the all-too-common scene in Little League® Baseball in which an overzealous parent berates a child for striking out or making a fielding error. Similar feedback occurs in the workplace. Sometimes when problems are solved, negative feedback is still given with responses such as, “What took you so long?” Discouraging feedback dampens the spirit and the willingness to aggressively pursue problem-solving challenges, which may require time and trial-and-error. For that reason, I believe people must be allowed to fail in attempting to solve problems and they must be given positive reinforcement when they succeed. Mistakes should be allowed in the process of learning and applying the right problem-solving techniques for a given set of challenges. People who are not heavily criticized during this process often go on to develop superior problem-solving abilities.

L.U.C.K.—a structured approach to problem solving (ironically!)

Problem solving need not be a difficult, time-consuming ordeal, but negative conditioning leads to this common perception. Often people take repeated stabs at a problem, hoping to luck into finding the root cause and a solution. If they don’t succeed after a few repetitions, they often quit, discouraged.

Luck plays a major role in problem solving, but the luck I am referring to is Laboring Under Correct Knowledge, or L.U.C.K.!  Counter-intuitively, this is a structured, systematic approach. A structured approach will:

  1. Reduce the probability of overlooking key factors.
  2. Necessitate understanding the basic process with the problem.
  3. Discourage reliance on hunches, intuition, pre-conceptions of the problem.
  4. Increase the probability that the root cause(s) of the problem will be found.
  5. Result in demonstrably workable solutions.

Contrary to popular belief, problem-solving success does not result from superior knowledge.  It certainly helps to understand the process, as well as the problem, but total knowledge of the object experiencing the problem is not a prerequisite for solving it. What matters is using the right tools effectively.

A systematic approach to problem solving will succeed only if such an approach is established as the organizational norm. Shifting problem-solving expectations is just as important as teaching and learning new skills. In order to upgrade problem-solving in any organization, one of the first steps that must be taken is to establish the expectation that uncovering root causes is task #1. 

I conducted five workshops on problem solving for one of my client companies. The general manager was concerned that he had not seen an improvement in problem solving in his organization. So I attended one of his daily production meetings and listened as everyone presented a seemingly endless list of problems to solve. Not once did anyone ask about root causes. Shortly thereafter, when the GM set the expectation for root cause analysis, his team showed a swift and significant improvement in their problem-solving abilities. 

New truths in problem solving for manufacturing processes

Here are five new truths to add to the first two from my previous post about problem solving:

  • Truth 3: Systematic methods may appear time-consuming, but take less time than the “change something and see what happens” approach.
  • Truth 4: Problem-solving success is not the result of superior knowledge.
  • Truth 5: Structured approaches to solving problems will only succeed if they are established as the organizational norm.
  • Truth 6: Today’s solutions could develop into tomorrow’s problems if the right questions aren’t asked.
  • Problem Solving Truth 7: Today’s problems are often yesterday’s solutions, implemented without data.

Coming in the next post

In my next post, we will continue our series with a discussion about the logical pathways of solving problems for manufacturing processes. As always, if you have any questions or comments about any of my posts, please leave a message and I will respond.

Until next time,

Bob Sproull


[1] Kepner and Tregoe, The New Rational Manager (Kepner-Tregoe, Incorporated, 1981)

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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