Question: What makes a problem hard?
(Answer at the bottom)
Having been involved in the manufacturing floor for over 30 years I think one of, if not the most challenging thing we face on the floor is the ability to clearly articulate the problem at hand. Because if we can’t clearly say it, how then will we fix it? It seems so “simple”, and most times it is – except for when everything goes wonky (or kerpluey).
When you see what appears to be a team working at cross purposes, there is a high probability that they each are working from their own framework (point of view) for the problem they are trying to address. If you see this happening, check and make sure they are working to the same problem statement.
Contrary to some, Six Sigma isn’t the root of all evil. We, on the manufacturing floor use the 5-whys tool for root causing production floor issues. Have you ever thought about what a valuable tool it would be to use for “knowledge worker processes”. Getting to know the real issue ensures a strong problem statement that the team can then address. Think about it. Everyone on your team sees the knowledge flow from a different perspective.
Once you’ve identified the root cause, realize it may uncover other problems that have to be addressed in order to get to the bigger issue at hand. I think it was Machiavelli who once said, “A small problem is hard to see but easy to fix whereas a big problem is easy to see but almost impossible to fix.”
Whichever end of the spectrum you find yourself on, taking the time to better understand the problem and clearly articulating the problem statement will put you and your team on the right course to solving your issue.
Here’s the answer to my opening question:
Knowing something is wrong, but not clearly defining it so you can communicate it
The actual “red phone” as seen in a recent tour of NASA’s Mission Control Center where all of the Apollo missions were launched.
There is a movie out called “The Martian” which is full of examples of how necessity drove problem solving. During the whole movie I kept thinking, yeah, that’s possible. Oh wait, so is that, but what if and about five minutes later they answered my question. What struck me most was how the main character took stock of his resources. Instead of panicking he took stock of what he had. Not what he wished he had or thought he could get.
While it is true that the first step in problem solving is “defining the problem”, the second step is knowing what resources you have. And that is where the quote “necessity is the mother of invention” comes into play.
Solving a problem on paper is pointless. Understanding the proportions of each resource in relation to the problem at hand will ensure an executable solution. There is only so much time, people, and money. We have to utilize our resources with intent.
Problem solving is not figuring out the theoretical or perfect solution to only then be frustrated that you don’t have the time or can’t have the people or your project won’t get funded.
True problem solving is embracing your resources and finding a path forward with what you have.
Inventing and problem solving are closely related.
Suited up for Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) training. Photo Jay Holobach.
I grew up in a generation that “anything was possible”. Man walked on the moon. My husband has even stood on the Mission Control room floor and watched astronauts in the International Space Station. (He can assure you they aren’t faking it.) I can talk to someone half way around the globe from the middle of my street – no wires attached. If you can think it, it can happen.
Really? “Anything”? That idea works great for innovation, for business expansion, or career dreams. Not so much for targeted problem solving. While everything is possible – including potential root causes – not everything is probable. At work, I get asked lots of “what if” questions – to which I respond “that is possible, however the question is how probable.”
In the thick of business decisions aimed at fixing disruption, to attack in-the-minute problems, when timing is critical – focus on the probable. It is the filter that will let you be more right more often. Focusing on the possible will tie you like an anchor to indecision.
So where does the possible come in? Do I ever care? Once a plan is laid in, considering the possible allows you to be quick and nimble with plan b, plan c, and so on – when things go astray you have a backup plan ready to go.
Rule of thumb: Decide based on the probable, have back up plans based on the possible.
Your problem solving bag of tricks size may vary.
One thing companies have in common – regardless of industry, locations, or size – is that there are plenty of problems to solve AND limited resources to do so. Thus, one tool in your “problem solving bag of tricks” must be a filter to prioritize what to go after first.
One tool I use is a Pareto chart. Based on what you deem as important (y-axis), it sorts highest to lowest. By focusing on those at the left, you get a bigger bang for your effort.
Of course, this tool comes into play once you have decided “what set of problems to focus on”.
For example, assume you have determined that machine down time is adversely effecting your business. You could plot which machine has the greatest downtime and focus there. Or you may plot which shift has the greatest downtime and focus there. Or maybe it is electrical vs mechanical vs computer. How do you decide “what” to Pareto? If you pick the wrong category — you could waste a year of resources and have no improvement.
Here are 4 simple questions that help sort that through…
1. Go back to the balance sheet. What is costing you the most money?
2. Assess your resources. Of what costs you the most money, what costs you the least to fix?
3. Timing is everything. Of what costs you the most, are there any quick wins that can fund the next fix or set of fixes?
4. Emotional land minds always exist. What problem does your leadership want solved? Even if it is not on your “most costly”, you will want to spend resources on it.