No one likes problems. We either try and resolve them or we try to avoid them. We avoid them by doing nothing or by simply ignoring they exist hoping they will go away. Sometimes ignoring a problem is a good strategy as not all problems need or deserve our energies to resolve. However, when we decide to work on resolving a problem how we proceed is important to achieving an outcome. Too many times I have seen organizations and individuals focus on the process instead of the desired results. In other words, they spend more time talking about the problem, talking about the problem-solving process and little to no time about executing the solutions to the problems they are trying to fix. This process focus isn’t problem-solving.
So what is problem-solving?
Problem-solving is simply the process of finding a solution to an issue that is causing us concern. It isn’t mysterious or even complex. Yet when well-intended people are a part of the problem-solving process, the entire event can become a long-term convoluted, and ambiguous series of conversations tied end to end with little focus on results and more focus on the process. In other words, it is seemingly a long-winded conversation with no purpose other than for everyone to meet and participate in the meeting.
Problem-solving should be done with a purpose, with a specific, measurable outcome in mind. The process is simple and can involve as few as four basic steps. These are:
Define the Problem – what is the problem you are trying to solve? Is it the root problem or is it a symptom? Ensure that it is the root. What outcomes does the problem produce that need to be corrected and why. How will you measure a successful solution?
Develop Solutions – identify solutions that can resolve the root problem you are trying to solve. There is no limit to the number of solutions you should develop, and all should be welcome, even if they seem unrealistic or excessively expensive.
Evaluate the Solutions and Select One – Some of the solutions can immediately be removed as unrealistic, not fitting your culture or excessively expensive. Explore the remaining and select a few, consensus or some other method, and look closely at cost, benefit and the outcomes it would present. Don’t be afraid to mix and match parts of different solutions if appropriate. Pick the best solution, again by consensus or some other method. The bottom line is to select one.
Implement the Solution and Measure for Effectiveness and Desired Outcomes. – Execution. The one area most businesses struggle with doing. This is where you execute, deploy or implement the solution you chose. Ensure that you have the means to evaluate its success, use the MAIC of DMAIC (Measure, Assess, Improve, Control, as a tool to help do this.
If those steps are followed, if the problem-solving Team Leader keeps the Team focused on selecting and executing a solution, the common practice of meeting, meeting and meeting again with no end in sight can be avoided and even eliminated. Establishing timelines for each of the four steps, e.g., we will identify a variety of solutions in 30 days, can help drive the process forward.
Common challenges in the process usually involve the actual identification of the problem itself. A common technique I use to help with this is called “The Five Why’s.” It is as it suggests, a series of why type questions that are asked until you can no longer answer them. For example,
Q: Why did the machine break?
A: Maintenance wasn’t performed
Q: Why wasn’t maintenance performed
A: It wasn’t scheduled
Q: Why wasn’t it scheduled
A: No one knew who’s responsibility it was
The last answer is the root cause of the problem you are trying to solve. Now develop solutions for that cause.
Problem-solving needn’t be an overly complicated process nor should it be perpetual solution implementation until either the problem is solved or people are tired and just accept the problem as the status quo. Making these simple problem-solving steps a part of your Quality Improvement process will not only cause employees to want to be involved more it will improve the performance of your organization. Improved performance is the ultimate goal.