Let’s Solve the Problem

[Post by Chuck Krugh, January 20, 2023]

One of the things that you’re likely learning about me is that I don’t waste time. I like to be efficient. I’m probably not alone in thinking this way. I like to be organized and structured as I approach my work. I especially like to make sure that I do it right the first time. When a problem does occur, I like to solve it on the first go around.

Before we get busy covering the Problem Solving Form (PSF), I wanted to remind you of the three levels of problems that we may see in our work. The first, the “Go-Do” problems, you can go fix yourself without anyone else getting involved. At the second level are the more complex “Get Help” problems. At this level, you need to involve others and employ a problem-solving tool. The third level, the “Big Problem,” requires the use of other complex problem solving tools and usually a larger team.

Most of the problems we will face are Level 2 – the “Get Help” problems. We can attack this problem level using the A3 form I introduced in my last blog. The form organizes our approach with a structure that maximizes our chances of successfully solving the problem on the first go around. This format makes the process efficient!

Let’s look at the PSF in detail. There are five steps to problem solving on the form: Define the problem, List potential causes, Find the root cause using the 5 Whys, Find the optimum solutions and Implement plan and, last, Control and Check. This sounds like a lot of steps, but in practice it follows our light switch example from the last blog pretty well. In order to ensure that you have effectively solved the problem at hand, you need to use the form and follow the steps.

Step 1. Define the problem based on facts

One of the most critical aspects of problem solving is taking enough time to define the problem. In Step 1, it’s imperative to understand and articulate the problem so you and the rest of the team working on the solution understand the “What” we are trying to solve. Clear identification of the problem drives faster problem solving!

The “Desired situation” block provides an area to articulate what should have happened or what we expected to happen in the process. Stating what should have happened helps confirm whether you have identified the problem accurately. You may also want to write as part of the desired situation that we don’t want this error to occur again. This step starts the group thinking about potential solutions.

When we do have a problem, we need to put a countermeasure or “Temporary solution” in place so the same error or problem doesn’t reoccur on the next cycle – this could be either a business or manufacturing cycle. The temporary solution allows production to continue.

But we do not want the temporary solution to stop the problem-solving process. We must identify and implement a permanent solution that gets incorporated back into the plan. So after implementing a temporary solution, we move to Step 2.

Step 2: List all potential causes

While Step 1 identifies the problem, Step 2 discovers the problem’s potential causes. Often, people try to shortcut the process by identifying one potential cause and not several “causes.” The form encourages a full examination by requiring a deeper look into potential causes.

Really good problem solvers avoid the trap of providing only one potential cause because they have learned that a cause is often not obvious. Over the years of my journey in Lean Manufacturing, I’ve participated in many training scenarios that clearly demonstrated how wrong we were in our first assumptions about a problem. Beware of the trap!

Step 3: Find the root cause using the 5 WHYs

My favorite part of the process is Step 3: Find the root cause using the 5 Whys. By asking repeatedly Why did this problem happen? and then, in turn, Why did that happen?, we gain more knowledge. In theory, it takes five “Why” questions to get to the root cause; however, in practice, it can take more or fewer depending on how well we have identified the problem back in Step 1.

Fully and properly conducting the 5 Whys step may cause us to go back to Step 1 and restate the problem more accurately. It’s no big deal to restate the problem, in fact, it provides a better solution for the long term.

Finding the root cause is critical to the problem-solving exercise. By fixing the root cause, you solve the problem. However, if we don’t dig deep enough to find the root cause, then the problem will reoccur. Now, it may not reoccur on the next cycle – but trust me, it will reoccur. It’s only a matter of time.

This may be a good place to say that problem solving is not an exact science and we will not get it right or perfect every time. The form provides structure and methodology to achieve consistent results – not perfect results. It’s more about repetition and getting good at the process of problem solving.

The other important aspect of using the form is that it documents what we did – how we came to our conclusions about the root cause and how we chose and implemented the corrective action. In case we don’t solve the problem the first time, we can go back – most likely to the 5 Whys  –  to drill deeper to the real root cause.

Step 4: Find the optimum solutions and Implementation plan

We have asked the 5 Whys, and we think we have some potential solutions for our problem. Now what do we do? Well, there’s a lot to do in Step 4.

In Step 4, we identify potential solutions, pick the best fix and develop an implementation plan for it. Because we spent time in Step 1 identifying the right problem and cross-verified it in Step 3 by asking the 5 Whys, we now have a few potential solutions to consider. Usually one of the solutions stands out and becomes the key one to implement. To ensure we implement it properly and completely, however, we need a plan. (Have you noticed the word “plan” keeps coming up in blog after blog?)

To ensure a successful implementation, we must identify three key elements:

  • What is going to happen?
  • Who is going to do it?
  • When is it going to happen?

A complex solution will require several steps to implement. A word of caution – don’t skimp on the implementation plan. The more details the better. A more detailed plan avoids a lot of misunderstandings about Who is doing What and When they are doing it. Remember, we don’t want the problem to reoccur!

Step 5: Control and Check

Step 5, the final step, is the Check: Did the solution we implemented cure the root cause of the problem? As a part of the problem-solving process, we need to set some control parameters that we will check after we implement our solution. That way we can be sure the problem is solved and the original error is no longer happening. If that original error is no longer occurring, the team has successfully solved the problem! If the original error is still happening, then we go back to the 5 Whys and relook at our root cause analysis for gaps.

With the successful conclusion of Step 5, we file the form (physically or electronically) so that we keep a record of what we did. These forms are useful for future problem solving events with similar problems – they become a reference for use.

As you read this blog, I hope you could see the Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) approach underlying this problem-solving process. I made a quick reference to it in the last blog. To expand just a bit, Steps 1 through 3 are the PLAN steps, Step 4 is the DO step and Step 5 is the CHECK step. If the check step requires us to do something, like document the change in a plan for a future ship or for the next time we run that particular report, then that becomes the ACT step in the PDCA model. Make sense?

I know this blog is long, but I wanted to cover the whole process and form. I hope you see the power, organization and structure that this form provides to help us solve problems. You will start seeing us implement this form and process throughout our company. This will help us solve many problems.

See you on the deckplates!

Safely Execute High-Quality Work

President, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works

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