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The Best Problem-Solving Method

Posted by admin on April 30, 2014

In our last few blog posts we’ve looked at some popular problem-solving methods, including Ishikawa Diagrams, 5 Whys, A3 and 8D, and we’ve compared these with Root Cause Analysis (RCA).  While we are partial to the RCA approach, there is not one best approach.  Much will depend on who will be involved in problem solving, what the company is willing to commit to training and what the culture will support.

Many manufacturers have moved to having wider groups of employees involved in problem solving.  We have worked with clients that want all their employees to have the same level of problem-solving skills using a single process.  This facilitates communication because everyone is speaking the same vocabulary and understands where they are in the process.  The downside of this approach is that it takes a lot of time for everyone to gain proficiency in even one specific problem-solving method.

Some of our clients have taken a different tact by giving production operators responsibility for reporting when they think something is wrong.  They are charged with collecting as much information as they can about when they noticed the problem and in describing the symptoms of the problem.  This information is then used by a team leader who has developed deeper skills in RCA to start working through the problem.  This expert may confer with the production operator who reported the problem to gather more information before identifying the most likely cause of the problem and a solution.  This approach focuses on giving employees the skills to perform their specific role in problem solving.

Other manufacturers think it is best to have many problem-solving methods at their disposal.  This Swiss Army knife approach allows problem solvers to select the method that they think will work best in a given situation.  The downside of trying to use the toolbox approach is that it limits teamwork.  For starters, everyone on the team has to gain a proficiency in multiple problem-solving disciplines in order to contribute effectively.  Second, it can lead to disagreements about the best method to apply to the situation at hand.  Needless time can be wasted debating the merits of one technique over another.

The other issue we have with the toolbox approach is making assumptions about the difficulty of a problem at the outset when considering which tool to apply.  How many “simple” problems linger years after they were first identified and countless “fixes” were applied?  And how many were made worse because the “fixes” that were applied caused bigger problems?  Casting a problem in the difficult or simple bucket at the outset might be the biggest mistake of them all.

We don’t talk too much about culture in our blog posts, but it can have a big influence on the problem-solving method that is used.  This is because the leader or leadership team may have been trained in a specific technique somewhere in their careers and they credit it with their advancement.  It may not be the best reason, but commitment by leadership is a critical success factor for any initiative in the plant.  So if they believe in a specific process, that is the process that gets used.

We like the RCA approach to problem solving because it not only gives a framework for problem solving, but it focuses on the “how-tos” to find the real cause of the problem, identify the fix and think what else could go wrong.  It is rigorous enough for the tough problems, but also can assure you don’t overlook something on the simple problems.  Is it overkill?  Sometimes.  But would you rather spend a little extra time and know you nailed the problem or do you prefer to cut corners and wonder if you solved the problem or just alleviated the symptoms?