How to solve problems until you find a land flowing with milk and honey

In large part, the success of a company depends on how quickly and effectively it identifies and solves problems. Any individual or any company can excel if there aren’t problems, but unfortunately no one operates in a blissful land of rainbows and butterflies where problems don’t exist. Do you or your company have the skills to clearly identify and quickly deal with problems? Defining problems may seem subjective but the goal is to make it objective. This mindset can be fostered by a company’s culture.

At Extol, we are not immune to problems and issues. We too battle challenges that make work life interesting. Our company is diverse with many groups or cells with very different functions. Each cell is structured differently and provides different support to our customers and one another. This diversity is not only operational but also philosophical. We have cells that create standard products, which follow strict manufacturing and quality management systems, while 20 feet away a department develops new products. Some cells specialize in machining and material processing for the entire company, others provide manufacturing consultations, and plastic joining expertise. We also have teams that design and build custom machines and incorporate varying levels of automation. Each group is diverse and each struggles with different issues. Purely hypothetical examples would be interdepartmental communication, variations in processes, and creeping scope. These purely hypothetical issues result in problems that need solving. Hypothetically of course…

As many of us were told by educators, parents or coaches, the first step in problem solving is to identify the problem (just after we acknowledge there is one). This idea isn’t rocket science; of course one can’t solve a problem that one hasn’t defined. However, methods to identify the problem may vary. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve likely used the terms root cause and symptoms. Isolating the problem from the symptom brings attention to the issue and is critical to problem solving. On a daily basis we at Extol sift through and identify which issues and challenges are symptoms of a bigger issue and which items are root causes to the problem.

We log all issues in their respective cells in issue response logs. From there, we run each issue through a filter process to determine if any of the following are true:

  • Is this a repeat issue?
  • Is there a safety concern?
  • Is the impact of this issue (for Extol or Extol customer) significant?
  • Is the issue likely to happen again?
  • Will fixing the issue require significant effort?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, we use a more formal corrective action process. There are a number of tools used to formalize the corrective action process. Extol and many others in the auto industry use the 8 Discipline method (8D’s) which was developed by Ford Motor Company in the 1980’s. Other methods include the 5 step Kepner Tregoe (K-T) Problem Analysis, the GROW model, and DMAIC which is central to the Six Sigma methodology to name a few. Regardless of the method your company uses, corrective action tools are used to drill down to the true issue worth addressing. Without identifying and attacking the root cause (or causes), the symptoms are likely to return.

There is also a human element in identifying and fixing problems. Folks don’t want to air their dirty laundry. Who wants to talk about their issues? I’d assume there are three categories in your company – people who don’t want to talk about the problems, team members who want to point them out but not fix them, and people who want to point them out and fix them.

Many team members don’t want to identify issues and may even be motivated to hide them. Writing this blog is no different. There is vulnerability in discussing how to identify and deal with problems. Therefore, it is important to remind team members that a process can be put in place to reduce human error. While personal performance may contribute to an issue, if an organization has a healthy culture of honesty and accountability, corrective actions to solving problems can systematically address issues where the human element is reduced. Even though we often talk about corrective actions not being a punishment, they can still be perceived that way. The truth is identifying and addressing the issue is vital to move the organization forward.

Systematic problem solving is usually not a subject that gets much positive attention, but if your organization strives to minimize problems and their impact, it is imperative to always be searching for root cause. The alternative is to be plagued with a variety of symptoms which won’t lead to the blissful land of milk and honey we all desire.

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