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
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.
Heading up I-24 into work, I noticed the guy passing me was on his phone, eating with one hand, drinking coffee with the other and speeding. I thought to myself, all he needs is someone in front of him to tap their brakes a little too hard and his day would change in a blink of an eye not to mention how his actions would impact (literally) those around him. Luckily, I exited before finding out the rest of his story.
Because I was contemplating this post I thought of the analogy between that I-24 driver and how making multiple changes while multi-tasking doesn’t affect just you – but how it impacts those around you. As a leader your first priority should be those you serve.
One of the hardest things in problem solving is taking the time to do it right. You have the pressure of leadership wanting an answer, the voice of the customer wanting progress, and the weight of fixing failures before they happen again.
With all that going on, it is easy to succumb to changing everything at once. It could be x, y or z – so let’s change all three and “save” some time.
There is just one problem with that, ok, actually there are many problems with that. You now have NO idea what “thing” fixed the issue, or if all three changes just made it worse. So much for sleeping tonight as you lay awake in bed pondering a new potential outcome.
Tried and true scientific studies specifically control all things AND they only change one thing at a time. A former boss of mine used to say tongue-in cheek, “We never seem to have enough time to do it right the first time, but we always have plenty of time for rework.”
This works in root cause problem solving on the shop floor too. If not, you may find something that correlates, but is not causal. It appears to be fixed, and sometimes for a while. Then one day the problem is back. That is usually a sign you worked on a correlated issue, not a causal issue.
Patience really is a virtue. Work to one change at a time – especially if you really want to find the causal and fix it once and for all.