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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

A Quality Lesson from Hopeulikit

Train people in problem solving

Published: Monday, September 18, 2006 - 22:00

Last year I had the good fortune of doing some consulting with B&C Specialty Products in Hopeulikit, Georgia. B&C does light manufacturing, primarily plastic molding and assembly, and they also distribute imported products produced by companies in the Far East. They have about 150 employees and are the biggest employer by far in Hopeulikit.

B&C was a perfect place to learn about managing and quality. Every day presented a new lesson. Usually the lessons were hard-learned, and those are the ones that really stick with you. B&C was gracious enough to allow me to interview their personnel about issues that arose and events that occurred during my time there. Here is one of those lessons: Train your employees in problem solving. The scenario is described by the people who actually lived it.

—Paolo Ferrari, manager of quality and logistics
"We’re making good progress in problem solving. That’s one of the efforts I established when I got hired into this job. God knows we have enough problems, so it’s important we try to deal with them. Our process isn’t perfect, but at least we’re trying to apply discipline and involve people in the process.

"Whenever a problem comes up, we try to assemble a team of folks most familiar with it. This team could consist of nearly anybody: technical experts, salespeople, operators, maintenance. A member of management is usually also on the team. We seek people who have first-hand knowledge of the problem being faced, which is a huge advantage when they start solving it. They don’t have to spend a lot of time getting background information because they lived the background information.

"Once we have our team in place, we put them in a room and let them go at it. Problem solving is a kind of magical process, and we provide the fertile soil for the magic to happen. Did you ever see that movie, “12 Angry Men”? That’s what our process is like. Some good tension usually produces good results. The room we meet in has a long table, chairs and a couple of flipcharts. Nothing fancy. The team butts heads during the process, but they usually come out with decent solutions. Personally, I like the process, because I’m a competitive person. Competition brings out the best in everyone.

"After the fix is decided, the issue is turned over to the applicable manager for implementation. The responsibility then shifts to the process owners for taking action. This has worked reasonably well most of the time. I usually hear back from the manager about how the implementation is going. Depending on progress, we’ll apply more resources, pressure or arm-twisting.

"No matter what, every problem has to be closed in 60 days. This helps keep the heat on everyone and drives us toward completion. Sixty days sounds like a lot of time, but that’s the long end. We encourage responsible parties to take action faster. Some actions take a week, and others take longer. The key is that all actions get closed."

—Emily Hammond, human resources director
"My only complaint with the problem-solving process is that the same people always seem to be involved. Yes, a wide range of people are selected, but many of these people opt out. They’re too busy, too rushed, facing deadlines, whatever. That leaves the true believers and the people who have nothing else to do. Paolo is a true believer. He jumps to problem solutions within the first 15 minutes. Sometimes he’ll piddle around with possible causes, but usually not. Paolo has a bad habit of dominating the process, too. He thinks problem solving is like an arm-wrestling match. I think that’s why most people opt out of the process.

"We have another gentleman, Armand Barnyard, who likes to argue with Paolo. Barnyard is our director of technology and a real-life rocket scientist. He shows up to problem-solving sessions whether he’s invited or not, just so he can knock heads with Paolo. Whoever has the most hot air wins, and his solution is selected. The other people sit in the room eating doughnuts and thinking about all the other things they’d rather be doing. We would really benefit from a facilitator at these sessions, someone who could keep the group focused and prevent anyone from dominating the process. I suggested that I could start acting as a facilitator, and Paolo took it as a personal insult. ’Are you saying I don’t know how to lead a group?,’ he asked me. I wanted to tell him, ’No, you don’t know how to lead a group, but you certainly know how to railroad one.’ The whole point of assembling a team is to benefit from the diverse experiences and viewpoints that come from the group. We’re completing missing this benefit, despite the fact that we always bring groups of people together to solve problems. It’s mob problem solving, not team problem solving.

"Another thing I don’t like about our process is that it seems a little hurried. Our procedure says all problems must be closed within 60 days. Often this is plenty of time, but occasionally we’re facing a process issue or customer complaint that takes much longer to address. Instead of acknowledging this and taking the time to do the job right, we’ll close out the issue just to meet the 60-day deadline in the procedure. The procedure hinders us instead of helping us. I can name half a dozen problems that never got solved, but got closed anyway because they were nearing the deadline. All in all, I’d say our problem-solving process needs some problem solving applied to it."

—James Mellow, molding operator
"I love solving problems. It’s one of those things that come natural to me. Before I even got into high school, I was making money fixing lawn mowers and small appliances in my neighborhood. So when I heard that we were going to start using team problem solving and involve production people, I was very excited. Of course, I volunteered the first time I was given the opportunity. After all, it’s something I love to do.

"That was about a year ago. Participating in problem solving has been one of the most frustrating and demoralizing things I’ve done at B&C Specialty Products. It’s a complete disaster. The biggest obstacle we have is a lack of any sort of method. Everybody just goes into a room and tries to solve the problem. There’s no guiding process that leads us through it. Some guys are trying to define the problem, while others are trying to determine the cause, while still others are coming up with solutions. Nobody is on the same page, and it just leads to chaos. We need a clearly defined method that tells us what to do first, second, third, etc.

"Once we figure out a method, everyone needs to be trained in it. In my opinion, nobody should ever be asked to take part in problem solving until they have been properly trained. I have a few co-workers who actually wanted to quit their jobs as a result of being on a problem-solving team. It was that bad.

"Whenever I solve a problem, I have a series of logical steps I take: First, define exactly what the problem is. Second, determine the causes of the problem. Then I take action to remove the causes. Lastly, I verify that what I did actually worked in a lasting way. This isn’t brain surgery, but it’s a discipline that works. That’s what we need.

"A problem-solving method will eventually become second nature. Until it does, though, we need someone in the room to make sure that everyone follows the method, kind of like a referee. I heard someone call this role a ‘facilitator,’ which makes sense. This person would not have any responsibility for solving the problem, but would only be concerned about making sure the group worked well together, followed the process and kept emotions out of the mix. Paolo Ferrari says he does this, but he really does the opposite. He’s the antifacilitator. I think I just invented a new word."


When training your employees in problem solving, remember:

  • Adopt a method for problem solving and make it an institution. Little is more important to an organization than a good method for fixing problems.
  • Train everyone in your problem-solving method. Never ask anyone to take part in problem solving until they have been trained.
  • Use facilitators during problem-solving sessions to keep participants focused, maintain discipline around the method and help manage conflict.
  • Conflict can be helpful in problem solving, but it must always be managed. That is why facilitators are so important.
  • Never let problem solving become a contest of wills.
  • Use teams for problem solving whenever possible. Include people who have first-hand knowledge of the problem.
  • Don’t let people opt out of a problem-solving process. It should be part of everyone’s job.

Discuss

About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.