SPC Guide
First Word


Gregory Ferguson

Magical Problem Solving

Learn to conjure a solution for your toughest problems.

A cosmetics company hired a friend of mine to solve a serious problem: bottles that leaked during shipment. The problem not only resulted in lost material and delayed shipments, but also in upset customers and disrupted production schedules. To make matters worse, the leaking material often damaged other goods during shipping and caused lawsuits, liability claims and general havoc. Dozens of well-educated, technically competent people had been working on this problem for years. None of them was close to a solution.

 My friend walked into the plant and solved the problem in a couple of hours.

 What sort of magic made this improvement possible? It wasn't SPC.

 Problem solving, by its very nature, is a creative process. I've been fascinated by puzzles and problems all my life. I used to say that my career ambition was to become a wizard.

 So, how would a good wizard attack a problem?

 There are several factors to consider. Among the most important is motivation. Others include education, experience, reinforcement and temperament.

 Let's consider the leaking bottles. When people went to work for this company, they tried to fit into the organizational structure and look good to their boss. They also tried to make their boss look good: If their boss told them to perform a chemical analysis of the bottles, that's what they did. So they weren't really trying to solve the problem of the leaking bottles; they were trying to solve the problem of how to perform the chemical analysis.

 What about reinforcement? Suppose their boss liked crisp reports with lots of charts and graphs and no typographical errors. Suppose they were rewarded for writing reports and punished for wandering around in the production area. How would you expect them to spend their time?

 Let's think about temperament. What if they preferred clean, air-conditioned offices to old, dirty factories? Where are they going to spend their time?

 These are the reasons people can work on problems for years without solving them. They aren't trying to solve them; they're trying to do what they think is expected. They are doing what they've been taught to do.

 Consider the role of consultants. They don't need to fit into the organizational structure because they'll only be there a few days. They aren't given specific instructions; they're just told to go solve the problem. Most consultants have worked in a wide variety of situations. They don't have a day-to-day routine or a boss asking for reports. And it's pretty likely that they've spent quite a bit of time in old, dirty factories.

 So when my friend asked to see a leaking bottle and no one could show him one, he realized that none of the people working on this problem had ever seen one. This struck him as quite odd. After he inquired, he was told that the bottles never leaked in the factory; they only leaked during shipment. That struck him as more than odd. So he insisted, over their strenuous objections, of going out onto the "dirty" factory floor and looking at some filled bottles. When they showed him a pallet of bottles, he asked them to turn it upside down. Shaking their heads at his request, they did so. Three of the bottles leaked.

 After examining the leaking bottles and finding cuts and abrasions on the threads, my friend walked up the production line until he found a vertical conveyor. The bottles were being thrown up from the basement with great force. The flying bottles sometimes hit a piece of angle iron in the ceiling that cracked and damaged them. He suggested that they put a sheet of plywood over the angle iron to prevent the damage. After that, no more bottles leaked.

 Why was he the only one to look? How could dozens of people work for years without even seeing a defective part? I think it was an issue of motivation, education, reinforcement and temperament. This is learned behavior. People can solve problems if they want to.

 There are five definite phases in any problem-solving sequence: denial, futility, new facts, new theories and new reality.

 The first phase is denial. People are busy; they don't want to be bothered. They say things like, "We just fixed it." Denial is a natural stage of problem solving, and you have to learn the patience to work through it.

 The second phase is futility. People don't want to believe the problem can be solved: "The problems have been around forever, and someone has already tried to solve them and failed." If the task is impossible, then potential problem-solvers are off the hook. You have to work through futility as well.

 The real beginning of problem solving is the "new facts" stage. Here you take the lead and go out and find some facts (e.g., maybe some of the bottles do leak in the factory). As I've said before, one fact is worth a thousand opinions.

 With the new facts, people begin to form new theories: What if the bottles leak because they're being damaged? It's easy to test the theories if you're already looking for facts. Facts that fit enhance the theory. Facts that don't fit cause you to revise it.

 As you make your theory better and better, a new reality develops. People understand their processes and begin to control them.


About the author

 Gregory P. Ferguson is senior quality engineer at Global Solar Energy in Tucson, Arizona. He has published technical articles and assisted in the publication of two books. Comments can be e-mailed to him at .


Menu Level Above 

This Menu LeveL 

Menu  Level Below 

[Contents] [News] [WebLinks] [Columnists]
[Applications] [Software] [SPC Guide] [Letters] [First Word] [Books]

Copyright 2000 QCI International. All rights reserved.
Quality Digest can be reached by phone at (530) 893-4095. E-mail:
Click Here

Today's Specials