The Problem-Solving Process

The Problem-Solving Process


I first read Jim Lancaster’s The Work of Management:  A Daily Path to Sustainable Improvement two years ago; I discussed Lancaster’s image of sand-castle maintenance in this post

In his organization, Lancaster does not expect teams and leaders to keep extensive lists of production problems, the undesirable results like stress, delays, and defects that are generated alongside the intended product or service.

His managers and team members are not tasked with finding the most important production problem to tackle.   They are not pushed to prioritize problems unless there is an immediate customer issue.

“Experience has proven to me that people can have a much greater effect on productivity and quality when we fix something that broke minutes ago rather than last week’s issue—no matter how big or thought-provoking.” (p. 28)

 “…solving the problem that presents itself now is more valuable than finding and attacking the most important problem we have.  Solving today’s problems—the immediate problems that might seem simple or insignificant—has helped us improve productivity and quality like no other initiative in my 21-year tenure.” (p. 78)  

Problem Solving as a Process to be Managed

Every production process produces production problems.   In other words, every production process has a sister process, evolving in time:  the production problem process. 

As shown in the sketch at the top of this post, the management system at Lancaster’s company couples the problem production process with a problem solution process that works to eliminate the undesirable results.  The problems are inputs to the problem solution process.   Solutions are fed back to the production process, to reduce or eliminate future problems.

One-piece Flow Principle. 

Lancaster and his teams have applied the one-piece flow principle to the problem solution process.  Don’t batch the problems; process the problems in the order they present themselves to the problem solution process.

Lancaster knows that there is an important benefit to processing problems one by one, close in time and space to problem genesis:  people are more likely to find solutions grounded in ‘Go See’ while clues are fresh and witnesses have uncluttered memories.

As Kumar and Ando observe, most production problems can be solved without advanced analytic tools when you make careful observations and tap into the knowledge of people doing the work.

Practical Points about Problem Solving

Problem solving works better in a workplace that is physically organized and with people supported and ready to focus attention on problems. 

Lancaster’s problem-solving process starts with ‘Go See’ to gather clues and spark solutions.  

Lancaster directs his teams to observe proposed solutions for at least five problem-free cycles before declaration of success.

Lancaster also recognizes that a real problem solution process has limited capacity.   He requires his teams to limit themselves to study and action on at most five concurrent problems in each work area.   In his experience, tackling more than five problems in any department or unit drives results quickly to zero; the problem solution process grinds to a halt, overwhelmed by partial solutions and complexity.   On the other hand, as soon as one problem is solved on the list of five, the unit or department can take on the next problem that occurs.

As teams at Lancaster’s organization find and fix problems every day, they can tackle a large number of problems over the course of a year.

A Note on Control versus Improvement

The problem production and solution system just described is the heart of quality control, which aims to keep production processes predictable and delivering the results expected.   Lancaster distinguishes quality control from quality improvement, which moves a process to a substantially new level of performance. Typically, improvement requires more effort and disciplined analysis than control.  At Lancaster’s organization, visual management boards show quality control on the left side and quality improvement on the right side.

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