The essence of continual improvement
is the ability to solve problems effectively. When an actual—or
potential—problem crops up, its root cause is first
identified, and action is taken to eliminate it. If an organization
progressively seeks out and eliminates problems in this
way, continual improvement results. It’s that simple.
Theorizing about problem solving as a cornerstone of continual
improvement may be easy, but making it happen in a systematic
and effective manner is much more difficult.
Problem-solving skills rarely come naturally; they must
be refined and practiced daily. But these skills can be
developed by most organizations.
After years of problem-solving experience in a variety
of organizations, I’ve learned to recognize six consistent
fundamentals that are almost always present when problems
are solved in lasting and effective ways. If these six fundamentals
are incorporated into your problem-solving strategy, continual
improvement will inevitably result. Let’s look closer
at each of them.
Although most people consider problem-solving methods a
given, many organizations still use ad hoc methods for addressing
problems. In other words, they latch on to the most obvious
explanation for a problem and pray that they’ve addressed
its root cause. An effective problem-solving method is simply
a step-by-step road map for developing solutions. The numerous
reasons for using a formal method are very convincing. Here
are just a few:
• Prevents problem solvers from jumping to conclusions.
It’s always tempting to propose solutions before a
problem is properly defined and its root cause identified.
A structured problem-solving method prevents the process
from short-circuiting and ensures the critical, preliminary
step of truly understanding the problem and its variables.
• Ensures root cause analysis. An inability—or
unwillingness—to identify the root cause is probably
the single biggest obstacle to problem solving. However,
when one of the explicit steps of a structured problem-solving
method is identifying the root cause, it’s much harder
• Demystifies the problem-solving process. When each
step of the problem-solving method is understood and agreed
upon by all participants, the process gives everyone an
opportunity to contribute and drives a team-oriented style
of problem solving.
• Prescribes which analytical tools to use and when.
The sheer number of analytical tools available to problem
solvers is mind-boggling, and it’s not always clear
when the use of a certain one is appropriate. A structured
problem-solving method offers guidance on when and how to
use the proper tools.
Along with the numerous analytical tools available, there
are many structured problem-solving methods. Some are copyrighted,
some are public domain, some are very intricate and others
are quite simple. Typically, they range in complexity from
four to eight steps, but all the methods share the same
basic themes. Therefore, it’s less important which
problem-solving method you choose than actually picking
one and using it. You can even make up your own method.
But for those who aren’t feeling particularly creative,
you’re welcome to adopt the strategy outlined below.
This is a basic problem-solving method that accommodates
my own sensibilities and provides for all the necessary
1. Decide on which problem to pursue. For some reason,
this step is left out of many problem-solving methods. Maybe
it’s assumed that participants will automatically
know which problems are worth tackling. This is hardly ever
the case. In most organizations there are countless opportunities
for improvement but finite resources available to apply
to them. Most organizations must prioritize the issues and
dedicate resources accordingly. (Appropriate tools for this
step include brainstorming, Pareto charts, run charts, pie
charts, flowcharts and voting.)
2. Define the problem. In the clearest and most succinct
terms possible, what exactly is the problem? Provide the
details of who, what, where and when. "The customer
states that the parts won’t run right," is an
almost-worthless problem definition. Get specific. Keep
in mind that carefully defining the problem will provide
the raw material for successfully identifying its root cause.
(Appropriate tools include brainstorming, Pareto charts,
check sheets and histograms.)
3. Determine the root cause. Identifying a root cause proceeds
directly from defining the problem itself. The typical obstacle
at this step is mistaking a symptom for the root cause.
Often the so-called "root cause" is nothing more
than a restatement of the problem definition. Before team
members are asked to participate in problem solving, they
should receive training in how to distinguish symptoms from
root causes. (Appropriate tools include interviewing, brainstorming,
cause-and-effect diagrams, and voting.)
4. Generate possible solutions and choose the most likely
one. This step works very well in a team setting, where
it’s possible to generate a large number of alternative
solutions. The trick is to cast a wide net, then narrow
the possibilities to those solutions that satisfy the following
criteria: They have a strong chance of being successfully
implemented, they will be accepted by all relevant stakeholders
and they truly address the root cause identified in the
previous step. Then agree upon a solution, either by group
consensus or through executive decree. (Appropriate tools
include brainstorming, Pareto charts and voting.)
5. Plan and execute the solution. Even the best solution
is doomed to fail if its implementation isn’t carefully
planned and executed. This process typically consists of
two distinct phases: selling the solution to key stakeholders
in order to get buy-in and methodical project planning to
ensure the solution is executed correctly. It’s also
helpful to notify the organization’s customers who
will be affected by the solution. This reinforces the idea
that the organization is dedicated to customer satisfaction
and problem resolution. (Appropriate tools include project
planning, effective presentation skills, selling skills
and pilot runs.)
6. Verify effectiveness. After you’ve implemented
your solution, someone must verify that it’s effective.
The more objective this determination is, the better. It
isn’t absolutely necessary that people outside the
problem-solving team verify effectiveness, but it might
be helpful in order to avoid bias. Whether they’re
internal or external, customers are particularly good at
shedding light in this regard. If a customer doesn’t
perceive an improvement, then there is no improvement. Perception
is everything. (Appropriate tools include auditing, interviewing,
documentation, control charts and process capability.)
7. Communicate and congratulate. This step is routinely
forgotten in many organizations. Most problem-solving methods
I’ve seen don’t address this issue, even though
communication drives an effort’s success at every
stage. People crave information about how problems are being
addressed and solved. This information creates a feeling
of security and confidence and builds a culture of continual
improvement. Recognition is also critical. People who successfully
contribute to problem-solving efforts should be recognized
for their work. Congratulations should be dignified, public
and carried out by top management. (Appropriate tools include
empathy, integrity, and effective speaking and writing skills.)
Although the timeless quandaries of society might elude
a structured problem-solving method, the majority of predicaments
facing business organizations won’t. Select a problem-solving
method and commit to using it at all levels of your organization.
Then train everyone in the method and make it an institution.
A tool of this sort gets stronger with regular use, so exploit
every opportunity for applying it.
Each of the following fundamentals could be considered components
of the problem-solving method we just explored, but they’re
still important enough to look at individually.
Even if your organization uses a team approach to problem
solving, every problem should be assigned to a specific
individual. Confirm that this person accepts the ownership.
The owner is simply the project manager for solving the
problem. Make sure he or she understands that being selected
as "problem owner" in no way indicates accusation
or blame. In fact, it’s a vote of confidence in the
person’s ability as a leader and manager.
In a perfect world, problems assigned to committees would
always get solved. This might even happen in our world occasionally.
However, individuals who are accountable for projects lead
the vast majority of successful problem-solving projects.
Ownership can make remarkable things happen; don’t
Those most familiar with the variables surrounding a problem
should be involved in the problem-solving process. Often,
these aren’t managers and supervisors but people taking
orders, writing software, operating machines, driving forklifts
and performing repairs. An organization’s culture
must allow all personnel to contribute actively to the process,
regardless of their level within the organization.
One of the project manager’s most important tasks
will be to select the right people for the problem-solving
team. Participants should be told why they’ve been
included (e.g., their technical expertise, familiarity with
processes in question or experience in the department).
It’s important that individuals are motivated and
enthusiastic about being involved.
Project management is a very basic concept. It simply means
assigning responsibilities, timeframes, milestones and reviews—and
then tracking them to completion. Following through on a
complex initiative without project management becomes strictly
a matter of luck; something that wise people won’t
count on in a pinch.
A well-designed corrective and preventive action system
embodies the basics of project management. If your system
is user-friendly and streamlined, then it’s perfectly
suited as a project-management tool for problem solving.
If it’s not, then it should be redesigned—and
fast. Complexity isn’t a positive attribute for corrective
and preventive action systems. Benchmark systems from other
organizations and don’t be afraid to borrow best practices
where you find them.
An explicit step of nearly all problem-solving models is
identifying the root cause. But just because it’s
explicit doesn’t mean it will happen. Identifying
a problem’s true root cause must be encouraged, and
it’s the project manager’s responsibility to
see that this is done.
Identifying a root cause isn’t easy; it usually takes
some serious investigation and intellectual tenacity. Keep
in mind that a root cause is rarely the first thing that
comes to mind.
Consider these supposed root causes:
• Employee error. It’s possible that employee
error may have been a cause of a problem at hand, but is
it the root cause? Why exactly did the employee make the
error? Why is the task prone to error? Most likely, employee
error isn’t the true root cause, and any corrective
action directed at this mistaken assumption won’t
make the problem go away.
• Failure to follow procedure. Why didn’t the
employee follow procedure? Did he or she know that a procedure
existed? Are there other forces at play, such as an incentive
that discourages adhering to the procedure? The corrective
action for "failure to follow procedure" is usually
the old standby, "reprimand employee." Does anyone
really believe that reprimands drive continual improvement?
Not in any organization I’d want to be a part of.
• Employee not properly trained. If a training program
exists, why was the employee not properly trained? The only
reasonable corrective action for "employee not properly
trained" is "conduct training." If the system
is inherently flawed, however, no amount of training will
remedy it. In fact, training in a flawed work method only
reinforces the flawed method, guaranteeing more problems
in the future.
The examples above illustrate the elusive nature of root
causes. Once you think you’ve identified the root
cause, ask "why" one more time. You might be surprised
to discover one more layer to the problematic onion.
Make problem-solving success stories a frequent subject
within your organization. If a customer complaint gets addressed
effectively, tell the tale in the company newsletter. If
a group of employees succeeds in reducing the error rate,
send everyone an e-mail trumpeting the achievement. If the
quality assurance department assists a supplier in improving
the consistency of its output, ask the local newspaper to
cover the story. Get the word out any time your organization
succeeds in solving or preventing problems. The more often
employees hear about successes, the more they’ll want
to be involved. And the more they become involved, the more
successful your company will become.
Dignified public recognition is, of course, a form of communication,
one that delivers an astronomical return on investment.
The message underlying public recognition is "The company
appreciates your team’s fine efforts, and we sincerely
hope others will follow your example." Who wouldn’t
want to follow their example and be recognized, too?
Craig Cochran is a project manager with the Center for
International Standards & Quality, which is part of
Georgia Tech’s Economic Development Institute. He
holds an MBA from the University of Tennessee and is an
RAB-certified QMS lead auditor. CISQ can be reached at (800)
859-0968 or on the Web at www.cisq.gatech.edu.
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