The simple art of Problem Solving

Advanced analytics and machine learning are some of the ready-to-use technologies that help discover correlations and drive conclusions out of complex data sets that often describe our business and production processes. This is very helpful to take decisions aiming to prevent something unwanted to happen e.g., set process parameter to X in order to obtain product spec within tolerance.

There are many other opportunities to eliminate “waste” out of business processes that don’t require complex tools and data scientist skills but “just” common sense and good leadership. Solving problems should always start with a clear definition of “what is the problem?” Often we mix up the symptoms with the root causes, by doing so we look for solutions to the symptoms but don’t eliminate the root cause. Guess what? The problem will be back very soon…

Following a structured problem-solving approach is not difficult but requires discipline and asking the right questions, what we call “powerful questions“. These are questions that make people thinking, typically open questions that require an articulated answer, not just a binary yes/no.

Asking powerful questions should be one of the core skills of good leaders: not solving problems themselves but helping their teams to do so. I believe many have forgotten this and risk to lead teams in endless problem solving rounds without sustainable and substantial results.

simple problem solving 2

Two simple tools can help collect answers to powerful questions: a fishbone diagram and a Pareto chart.

  • The fishbone diagram is a type of issue tree that can help divide symptoms by root causes, another approach is to ask 5 times “why” something happened. Both are simple but extremely powerful tools to lead the first understanding of a problem. How many leaders require their teams to conduct a deep issues analysis before even starting to collect data?
  • The Pareto chart is useful to understand what root cause happens most frequently. This requires to collect data around “frequency of something happening” and present it on a diagram with highest frequency first. How often do we find that data? Yes, we have ALL the data in our ERP-system BUT do we use this? In our experience very often data is used to document and track transactions, but not to solve problems.

Developing a solution follows immediately after and is the simplest step of problem solving. Yes, this is simple once the root causes are defined! Solutions can be easy or difficult to implement, can also be strong or weak contributors to the solution. A simple 2×2 matrix can be used to select “quick-wins” and long-term solutions.

There is only one step left at this stage: a solid and agreed-upon implementation plan. Have your team leaders commit to an implementation plan and perform regular follow-ups.

I am a strong believer of simplicity. There is a huge opportunity in the basics that we often neglect. Try yourself, forget for a second the complex tools offered by the newest technology and experiment the “new old way” for problem solving. And remember to ask those powerful questions!