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How many problems has your company really solved?

Posted by admin on February 8, 2015

When we hear many people talk about the effectiveness of their company’s problem solving it reminds us of the story of the two-pack-a-day smoker who bragged he had no problem quitting smoking:  He had done it dozens of times.

Many companies believe they are pretty good at problem solving because they “fix” the symptoms of problems and they feel they have solved the problem itself.  Unfortunately the problem continues, maybe with the same symptoms, and everyone believes it's a “new” version of the original problem because the “fix” has worn out.  So they apply the same short-term fix and eventually this becomes part of the normal maintenance routine.  No one views it as a problem any longer.

Or may be new symptoms appear and everyone believes it's a new problem because the symptoms are new.  More likely, the “fix” that was applied when the original problem appeared has created new symptoms and everyone gets to work fixing these symptoms.  Now the cause of the original problem is being disguised even further.  With each attempt to fix the problem by treating the symptoms, identifying the root cause gets harder and harder.  Eventually, it is a bunch of band-aide fixes, sometimes to correct previous fixes.

So what should be done?

The first step is to ask the right questions to identify the root cause of the problem.  These include

  1. What piece of equipment, machine, process, product or customer is experiencing trouble?  Name it.
  2. What is the problem you see or that has been reported to you?  Name it, too.
  3. Where is the problem occurring?  Name the actual physical location.
  4. Where do you see the problem (on or in) the equipment, machine, process, product or application?  Locate as precisely as you can.
  5. What time did the problem start, or, when was the first time you saw the problem, and then, how many times after that first time has it happened?  Timing is everything is problem solving.
  6. Have you ever had this same problem before?  Is so, how many times have you had to fix it, and when?
  7. What was happening when the problem occurred?  Was it during normal operations, start-up, shut-down, first customer use, etc.?  Specify what was going on.
  8. How many identical or similar pieces of equipment, machines, processes, or products have this same problem?  How widespread is this problem?
  9. How many total problems or defects are you seeing?
  10. What is the trend?  Is this problem getting better, getting worse or staying the same, and at what measure – e.g. units per hour; the number of defects; the number or customer complaints; etc.?  And, is the severity of the problem getting worse, getting better or staying the same?

Obviously this approach takes time and considerable data.  But with the root cause identified, you are more likely to make the correct fix early and avoid fixing the symptoms.  In the long run it will save time and money, and problems really will be solved.