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The Problem with Decisions (and Problems)

Posted by admin on September 12, 2012

Industry Week recently ran an article titled “Decisions about Making Decisions” by Jamie Flinchbaugh, contributing editor of Industry Week, and co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center.  The article looked at decision making from a Lean perspective with key steps being:

  • Observe first
  • Make decisions closest to the point of activity
  • Define decision rights and expectations
  • Use standards to capture and utilize experience

No real argument with any of this.  But it seems Jamie is mixing problems and decisions.   And he is not alone in this confusion.  How many times have you heard someone say, “I have a problem.  I have to make a decision.”? 

In our experience, a problem and a decision are two different animals. 

We define a problem as a situation where there is a deviation from what should be happening or a defect in a product.  To solve a problem, you need to observe what is happening and collect data as a first step. Through effective questioning, you come to the most likely cause of the problem and then need to make a decision on the corrective action that will alleviate the cause of the problem, not just the symptoms.  Typical problems in a manufacturing environment include a line going down, a reduction in throughput or a spike in rejected product. 

A decision is a choice that balances opportunity and risk.  You consider the objectives for your decision, evaluate options against those objectives and assess risks for the option that best meets your objectives.  A typical decision in a manufacturing environment could be purchasing a new piece of equipment.  Decisions and problems sometimes intersect when a decision is not well thought out and causes downstream problems.  We teach our clients to apply Potential Problem – Risk Analysis to decisions to consider and prepare for what could go wrong when the selected option is implemented.

Are we being nitpicky?  We don’t think so.  By not being clear about the task at hand it is difficult to know who should be involved and how they should be involved.  We find that having a common definition and process for a problem, helps everyone involved focus on the key steps required to fix the problem.  Without this, team members are wasting time on unfocused activity that probably will not get to the root cause of the problem. 

Likewise, if a team is facing a decision and has not clearly defined the objectives for the decision, the relative importance of those objectives and a variety of possible options to meet those objectives, it is unlikely it will make the best choice.  And by not considering the risks with its choice, the team is likely to create problems.

This understanding of different processes for problems and decisions has been a powerful tool for our clients.  We are currently working with a large manufacturing company that understands the difference.  That is why decision-making skills are being taught to and used primarily by the senior team—those who have to make decisions on a regular basis.  Problem solving and problem prevention skills are being taught to and used by all levels of the company, especially employees on the production line, closest to where the problems happen.  Employees throughout the company now have a common language and process for communicating effectively about a problem. 

Other clients have elected to develop decision-making skills throughout the company, commensurate with the job requirements of each position.  This assures all employees have a common decision-making language and process, and that decisions are handled at the appropriate level of the company.

So when people tell you they have a problem because they have to make a decision, refer them to this article.  And ask, which is it, a problem or a decision?