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6 Ways to Improve Problem Solving in Your Company (+PDF)

At its core, much of continuous improvement is about problem solving. Tools such as Standard Work, policy deployment, kanbans, and andons are all really just pre-packaged solutions to common problems.

Despite that focus on resolving issues, few people have well-developed problem solving skills. This holds true even in companies that have been on their Lean journey for an extended period. The list below shows a ‘big picture’ view of problem solving, and ways to improve in each area.

    1. Commitment: Commit to improving the operation.

The hardest part of getting better, by a longshot, is developing the commitment to improve. Think about fitness and weight loss. There is no magic formula. Eat less. Choose healthier foods. Exercise more. Yet despite its simplicity, in 2009, 63.1% of Americans were either overweight or obese (Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index). 

The same holds true in Lean. The majority of companies that try to implement Lean fall short in their efforts. Calculating the ‘Lean Success Rate’ is a challenge, since most people don’t even agree on a definition of Lean, and because most data is self-reported. But it is clear that even though Lean typically delivers at least some improvement, companies expect more. That gap is likely in large part due to a lack of universal commitment.

Policy deployment is a great tool to create buy-in at top levels of the company. The truth is, the higher-ups in a company tend to be more vested in corporate success than frontline employees. Executives tend to get bonuses, and are often focused on promotions. Linking their personal success to that of the company through PD makes what’s good for the company and what’s good for the individual one and the same. Committed leaders who ‘walk the talk’ tend to inspire their teams.

    1. Identification: Learn to identify problems.

Even with commitment, identifying problems can be a challenge. Let’s assume that a company wants to get better, but doesn’t realize that producing in batches is actually hindering their operation. This is a classic case of not knowing what you don’t know. Obviously, education plays a big role in this. Creating a regular learning plan helps.

But there is more to it. People have to want to air dirty laundry. If people feel scared to voice concerns or highlight problems, then success will be out of reach. Creating a daily management system that compares expectations to reality can provides a structure where any deviations from the plan must be addressed. The systematic nature of the review very quickly removes the aversion to addressing problems publicly.

Eventually, this constant focus on identifying problems creates a culture where problem solving becomes second nature, almost like the actions that go into driving a car. People seldom actively think to check their rear-view mirrors when piloting an automobile. It happens reflexively. The ultimate continuous improvement organization has that same immediate response to problems.

    1. Process: Choose and use a problem solving methodology each and every time.

Surprisingly few people actually go step-by-step through a process when they are solving problems. As a result, they end up missing the mark and have to deal with the same issue over and over and over.

Note that most problem solving processes follow a similar path. In most cases, it doesn’t matter much which methodology you choose, so long as you actually choose one. And, of course, follow it.

    1. Tools: Practice using a variety of problem solving tools to support the system.

In woodworking, a carpenter has a variety of tools he or she can choose from depending upon the precise needs of the job. The more tools he has, and the more knowledge he has on how to use them, the better the finished product will be.

The same is true for problem solving. The better equipped one is, the more effective and lasting a solution will be. Some examples of problem solving tools include Pareto charts, run charts, brainstorming methods and the like.

    1. Teamwork: Engage all the people involved in problem solving efforts.

With the growing complexity of business, problems are seldom isolated to one area. That means solving them requires a greater level of communication, cooperation, and teamwork than ever. Creating lasting solutions requires alignment in goals. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) cascaded down through policy deployment act to keep everyone on the same sheet of music.

    1. Follow-up: Make sure the solutions stick.

Change is extremely hard. And many new processes take time to work out all the bugs. There is a high risk period of time right after a change is made where the challenges of the new processes combined with the comfort of the old draw people backwards. Follow-up is crucial to keep teams from backsliding.

Plan audits after a project. But don’t just have the leadership team check on things. People involved with the problem solving project should conduct the audits with coaching from their leaders.


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  • learnsigma says:

    Many managers that you may come across, probably me included to some extent, incorrectly assumes that if a problem is identified then someone, somewhere will solve it. Unfortunately, problems have a nasty of habit of selecting an organisation rather than the other way round, and the magnitude and importance of a problem is usually a product of both the prevalent systems which exist (or don’t exist) and the culture.

    A key question to ask yourself is how many people in your firm can identify these problems and deal with all of them at the same time? I’m going to guess there’s not many. So what’s the solution then?

    Generally, firms need to be able to solve many, many more problems, simultaneously than they do now. This will only be achieved by implementing processes that unite people who have the capacity to solve the problem. This is a major omission in the majority of organisations. The result? Root causes may be identified, which may in themselves be correct but the solutions will be ineffective for two reasons:

    1. The corrective action is made to fit the problem (which is usually a symptom of some other issue) and is disconnected from the actual identified root cause. The consequence of this is extra resource is thrown at an already broken process, which results in increased waste. What ultimately results from this approach is that the “solution” fades out after a while.

    2. The corrective action centres on a, “must do better” mentality. Here extra training is rolled-out or even worse incentives are used. People are asked to try harder, with management help. The outcome is that the original problem isn’t eliminated and demotivation and frustration sets in when it recurs.

    The one simple rule I always try is to apply Occam’s razor in finding a solution to a problem: when you have opposing solutions, always choose the easiest and/or simplest until evidence is found that indicates that this way forward isn’t the best.

    However, the fundamental issue that is often overlooked is not to wait around for a problem present itself but to make processes, cultures and indeed the entire organisation focused on identifying and preventing problems from occurring in the first place.

    • Jeff Hajek says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I suspect that there is also an issue with people being scared to try to solve problems on their own in case they make a mistake. Many managers punish failures rather than reward initiative and look at the situation as a learning opportunity.

  • […] 6 Ways to Improve Problem Solving in Your Company by Jeff Hajek – “Change is extremely hard. And many new processes take time to work out all the bugs. There is a high risk period of time right after a change is made where the challenges of the new processes combined with the comfort of the old draw people backwards. Follow-up is crucial to keep teams from backsliding.” […]

  • Jeff,

    This post is very interesting and spot on. It is surprising how often the solution to an age old problem appears to be easier than expected. The hard part is often just to do it which you address with commitment. Using the tools properly also looks easy but subtle mistakes can put you on the wrong path and accepting superficial causes as root causes can lead to ineffective countermeasures…..One colleague of mine used to say “there is nothing to it but to do it.” It can look easy but it’s harder than it looks for the reasons you’ve listed.

    Thanks for sharing.


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