In my last post, I put the raw DNA of problem solvers under a microscope to examine the component traits and behaviors. If a person or team can demonstrate these qualities, the opportunity to be successful will usually materialize:
- Being impartial and objective.
- Being analytical and systematic.
- Being imaginative, creative and ingenious.
- Having dedication, commitment, and perseverance.
- Being curious.
- Having courage.
- Having a sense of adventure.
- Being enthusiastic.
- Being patient.
- Being vigilant
Much of what you will be reading in this series is taken from my soon to be published book entitled, The Problem-Solving, Problem-Prevention, and Decision-Making Guide—Organized and Systematic Roadmaps for Managers, CRC Press (Taylor & Francis Group, LLC), scheduled for release in April.
The raw DNA of problems
Whereas in Part 2, I examined the DNA of problem solvers, in Part 3, I will do the same for problems themselves. Not all problems are created equal. When I say this, I am not referring to the basic problem itself, but rather the framework or structure of the problem. There are different categories of problems, and it is enormously important to first recognize what type of problem you are working on because the approach to one type will most likely fail to work in solving another.
There are three fundamental categories of problems:
- Change-Related Problems: Result from a change or adjustment from existing conditions.
- Chronic Problems: Persistent problems that have been around for a long time, and may have been resistant to previous attempts at a resolution.
- Hybrid Problems: These are a combination of change-related and chronic problems.
Let’s look at each problem type in more detail.
Changes happen every day in our lives so when should we consider a deviation we observe to be a problem? It has been my experience (and that of  Kepner and Tregoe) that in order for a deviation to be considered a problem, one or more of the following requirements must be satisfied:
- The deviation or performance shift must be recognized and perceived as being negative to the organization. That is, the deviation must result in a negative effect which may include any of the following:
a. Loss in throughput
b. Deterioration of quality, or a
c. Safety performance issue
Negative effects like these can translate directly into something like a missed delivery to a customer, customer complaint, injury on the floor, loss in revenue, or margin erosion.
- The cause of the performance deviation isn’t known. That is, the root cause is not immediately established using “normal” problem-solving techniques. This failure results in an extended period of time at the new negative performance level. Obviously, if the cause isn’t known, then the solution won’t be known either, so the performance problem lingers.
- Both the root cause and the solution are known, but the solution can’t be implemented because it either costs too much or takes too long. As pressure mounts to have the problem fixed, more often than not the symptoms get treated and a quick fix is implemented. This, in turn, usually prolongs the problem episode, or sets the stage for it to return or actually deteriorate even further.
If the root cause and the solution are known and implementing the solution doesn’t take too long and/or cost too much, then the deviation is not deemed to be a problem because it simply gets fixed. In effect, the change has no visibility within the organization, at least not in the upper echelon. But when you add in critical factors like cost, time, and lost revenues, deviations will most likely be portrayed and characterized as problems.
There is another type of problem that is not necessarily the result of a change, but rather, a problem that has been around seemingly forever. “We’ve always had this defect!” or “This machine has never produced what the others have” are two common answers that manufacturing professionals provide when asked about this kind of problem. I have named this type a chronic problem, and Kepner and Tregoe refer to this as a “day-one problem.”
As the name implies, this is the kind of problem that has been with us since day one. Maybe it’s the launch of a new machine that is supposed to be identical to one or more already in place. But since the start-up, it has never performed quite like the others. Or perhaps the supplier of a raw material has two factories and product received from one factory has outperformed product from the other, from the first delivery of the product. The figure above illustrates a common performance difference for this type of problem.
In this type of problem there is still the expected level of performance (machine target) of the new machine, compared with the actual performance of the other machines making the same or similar product. The deviation is the output between the lower performing machine and the other two (supposedly identical) machines. The same rules for deciding whether a deviation is a problem apply here, as do the problem-solving tools and techniques I have covered.
The major difference between change-related problems and chronic problems is where we focus our efforts. In change-related problems, we focus most of our efforts on determining what changed to create the new level of performance, and when the change occurred. But when the performance of one machine has never performed to expectations, compared to one that always has, we can assume that one of the conditions necessary to attain the expected level of performance has never existed. In this case, we must focus most of our efforts in the area of distinctions between where or when we have the performance problem compared to where or when we don’t. That is, there is something distinct or different when comparing the supposedly identical units, processes, or materials. If we are to successfully solve chronic type problems, then we must find the critical distinctions between the two objects, and take actions that are specifically aimed at eliminating or reducing the differences!
Now that we understand the distinctions between a change-related problem and a chronic problem, you might wonder if one problem could fall into both categories. The answer is an emphatic, “yes!” When you have an expected level of performance which has never been achieved, and it suddenly worsens, you are in the midst of a hybrid problem.
Consider the situation in the above figure. Here we see actual % EBITDA by month, compared to budgeted % EBITDA. The actual % EBITDA has been below budget by approximately 2.5 % for the first seven months of the year. In August, the situation worsens, and the gap between expected performance (i.e. % EBITDA) and actual performance grows to about 8%. A situation that was filled with pressure and negative energy has just become worse.
If you were the owner of these dreadful and deplorable financials, imagine how you would feel and what actions you would consider taking. You have two competing priorities here. On the one hand, you must determine what changed to make the already dismal situation deteriorate, while on the other, you must close the gap to the budget. You are solving a hybrid problem, with each part of it competing against the other. The logical approach would be to return to “ground zero” by finding the change that caused the performance shift. Then you would reverse it if possible, before developing a plan to improve the % EBITDA.
Although both priorities represent serious problems, one is short term and requires immediate attention, while the other is chronic and requires thoughtful and considerate action! One thing to remember when you are faced with a hybrid problem is to separate it into its constituent parts. You must disconnect the change-related problem from the chronic problem, because the solution to each will be different.
Coming in the next post
In the next post, I will introduce my proprietary “problem-solving map,” which offers detailed steps on how to solve a problem.
Until next time.
 Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe, The Rational Manager: A Systematic Approach to Problem Solving and Decision-Making, McGraw-Hill, 2006.
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