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H. James Harrington

FDA Compliance

The Devil’s Advocate Problem-Solving Approach

It's not a complicated approach, but it does challenge some of the traditional problem-solving rules.

Published: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 - 03:00

I often get assignments at organizations where I am required to take aside a group of people, either within the building facility or off campus, to focus on issues or problems. Typically these groups spend a considerable amount of time to summarize and present a well-defined problem. The next step is to review the data to determine if the problem has been quantified well enough to conduct a root cause analysis. If not, things are put on hold until the needed information is collected. Of course, this is "distasterville" if it is an off-site meeting. At some point, we determine that we have enough sound data to investigate why the problem happened. Once the root causes are defined, the group typically starts to brainstorm on how the problem can be corrected. Usually the group agrees on a plan of action to implement the solution.

For complex problems, teams are assigned to concentrate on individual conditions. Then the teams are brought together to present their findings and propose solutions. The matter here is the acceptance of the presented solutions. Teams may not fully agree, or may totally disagree, with proposed action plans but will accede as long as they mesh with the other solutions. The drawback with this approach is that a complex problem is not the sum of its parts. When we find solutions for its parts, they usually are not the best solution for the whole. Complex problems need to be handled by systematic experiments while a complicated problem is solved by detailed analysis that is driven by the experience and expertise of the team members.

The problem I've seen from these approaches is that we often set our sights on one solution and then collect data to prove that this solution is the right one. The more time we spend in groups, the more group thinking takes over. In these cases, we get so entrenched in getting the group’s buy-in that we don’t consider other alternatives. For example, there's a well-known story called The Abilene Paradox. This is a story about a family sitting around discussing what they would do for dinner, and after a long discussion agree to go to the town of Abilene, even though no one would admit they didn't want to leave the house.

Time after time, we've seen approaches that provide good answers, but not the best answer (e.g., plan-do-check-act; or define, measure, analyze, improve, control); and when they are reviewed by the real world, they are trimmed or even rejected. Now I'm not saying that these approaches are bad or should not be used. They are the basis of most corrective action improvement programs to date, so they do work. I ask you to be open-minded to another approach that I have used and found to be effective. It's one I believe you will find useful to have in your back pocket when you need it. I call it “The Devil’s Advocate Problem-Solving Approach.” It's not a complicated approach, but it does challenge some of the rules we've been using in our other problem-solving approaches. It is effective if you have a group of nine or more people working on an issue. Here's the way it works:

• Divide the group into a minimum of three subgroups with three to 10 people in each subgroup.

• Assign each subgroup the same problem to work on, in parallel, using the same approach they would use on a normal plan-do-check-act problem-solving activity, or any other approach in which they are familiar.

• Let each subgroup work on the problem until they have defined a tentative solution. Then a member from each subgroup is elected (one who can resiliently take criticism) to present his or her groups' findings to one of the other subgroups that is assigned to act as a review panel.

• When the elected presenters are ready, they deliver their subgroup’s solutions to the assigned review panel. The presentations must be as complete as possible. Set a time limit for all presentations. The objective is to sell the review panel on the presenting subgroup’s solution. The review panel must listen intently in complete silence; no comments or questions are allowed during the presentation.

• When the presentation is completed, the presenter turns around and cannot see the review panel. The presenter is now in the listening mode and is not allowed to enter into the conversation, not even to clarify a point or to explain what was meant. (Listening without the authority to respond or engage in the discussion leads to a much better listening experience.)

• The review panel is to be the devil’s advocate; they must assume the worst and play the part of a critic who would kill a good idea just for the fun of it. Each member of the review panel expresses their comments building on what was expressed by the previous panel member. After two or three rounds of comments, a moderator calls a halt to the activity and the presenter returns to their own subgroup sharing the comments from the review panel.

• Each subgroup then discusses, in a positive way, the solution that was presented to them. They also discuss any negative things they have to say about it. This cycle results in two good things taking place. The presenters come back with a long list of things that could go wrong with their own solutions; and each subgroup observes a presentation that gives them a chance to understand another way to solve the problem.

• Then each subgroup revises their solution and the cycle is repeated; only this time, the revised solution is presented to a different subgroup.

• After two or three cycles, the moderator changes the rules for the review panel and asks them to only give constructive input to the presenter.


Now you may think this is a harsh way to solve a problem and that people wouldn't enjoy the process. But I find that people do enjoy the experience and after the first cycle, they begin to listen more openly and consider other options. This exercise gets the subgroups to really think through their recommendations and come up with alternate solutions that are usually much better. Sometimes it's just good to challenge rather than agree.


About The Author

H. James Harrington’s picture

H. James Harrington

H. James Harrington is CEO of Harrington Management Systems, which specializes in total quality management (TQM), Six Sigma, lean, strategic planning, business process improvement, design of experiments, executive management mentoring, preparing complete operating manuals, organizational change management, ISO 9000, ISO 14000, and TRIZ. Harrington is a prolific author, having written hundreds of technical reports, magazine articles, and more than 35 books. He has more than 55 years of experience as a quality professional. Harrington is a past president of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the International Academy for Quality (IAQ).