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Everything Old Is New Again

Posted by admin on March 17, 2013

No, this is not a post about spring, which will be springing next week.  It is about the increased interest in problem solving we are seeing these days.  Maybe we here at ASG are attuned to problem solving because it is what we do day in and day out, but we’ve sensed increased attention to this topic over the past few months.  To verify this perception, we went to the IndustryWeek website and searched the term “problem solving”.  There were two articles on the subject in all of 2012.  So far in 2013 there have been two articles and one seminar in the website/publication.

Also, our recent article about critical thinking skills created some unexpected buzz in LinkedIn manufacturing discussion groups.  We usually would have a few people read a blog after we post to LinkedIn, but the critical thinking skills piece generated over 100 readers, ranking second only to an article that has been on our website more than a year.

Maybe more concrete is our experience with a large client, where we were brought in to help one plant with its problem solving.  We’ve done a number of training and application sessions at the plant, and the employees are generating some excellent results.  We recently sat in on a conference call where one of the plant leaders discussed the project with his peers at other plants.  There was strong interest from a number of people on the call.  We know one client doesn’t make a trend, but it sure was gratifying to hear the level of interest expressed by some of these seasoned manufacturing executives. 

For a long time, problem solving was the Rodney Dangerfield of manufacturing:  “It couldn’t get no respect”.  Yeah, everyone would admit it was important, but it was boring and sort of old school.  Everyone was focused on Lean this, Six Sigma that.  As the financial crisis hit and the economy crept back slowly, many manufacturers looked at these programs as expense cutting under a new banner.  This left some great ideas and concepts badly damaged because they were misapplied.

So what accounts for this new-found interest in problem solving?  After all, most of it doesn’t pretend to be anything new or fancy.  It is more a of getting back to basics by applying the fundamentals of effective thinking.  Companies are using these skills to address problems before they happen or resolve them quickly to avoid downtime and waste.

Despite teaching clients’ employees these skills and working with them to apply the thinking to real-life job issues for longer than we’d like to remember, it is still exciting to see a worker’s smile when he or she “gets it”.   Some of the issues they resolve have been nagging problems where no one had been able to get to the root cause.  They had tried lots of fixes, but they were all band-aides to address a symptom without fixing the underlying cause.  When employees nail the root cause by following an effective, data-driven questioning sequence, they are justifiably proud of their accomplishment. 

Frankly, all the “trend” stuff about problem solving is nice, but helping companies and their employees improve their performance and compete more effectively is something that never gets old.