Jason Piatt

Five Keys to Effective Operational Problem-Solving

Develop successful and permanent resolutions for sustainable results.

When solving problems within operations, it’s possible to do so partially and to have said problem manifest itself again and again with various mutations that would make us think we’re dealing with multiple issues. By completely and thoroughly resolving the core issue, we can accomplish two things: stop wasting resources dealing with problems from the same core issue and create sustainable improvement in the organization. In order to better solve problems, the operations team should be well-trained and guided to find permanent corrective actions for the problems they encounter.

1. Focus on Root Cause(s) and not Symptoms

It is very easy to focus on the symptoms that are most visible in the organization when trying to improve performance. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to scream “Stop being late with deliveries!” to resolve a delivery problem -- if it were, every executive would at some point have resolved the issue. Instead, we must ask “Why?” and drill down until the core root causes are identified. There can be one, multiple or interrelated root causes to any particular issue that manifest themselves in the operation.

2. Turn-off All Root Causes

If we only defeat one root cause of a problem that has multiple causes, the problem will re-establish itself shortly and perhaps change slightly so as to be considered a new or different problem. When we conduct our root cause analysis, we should identify all root causes and develop plans to turn off each one (or one of any given interrelated grouping) to make sure the problem never recurs.

3. Don’t Mistake Containment for Resolution

As soon as an operational problem is discerned, it should be contained. Awareness should be raised and those affected should work together to identify a short-term strategy for making sure the problem doesn’t escape the immediate area while permanent corrective actions are developed and verified. All too often, this temporary action can remain in place far too long while other more emergent issues are looked after. Instead, be certain to use the containment action to stop problems from becoming tragedies, but don’t allow containment to remain past its welcome.

4. Audit Results of Problem-Solving

When a problem has been certified as “solved” within the operation, this should trigger periodic and scheduled assessment of resolution to ensure that it is truly fixed. A post-mortem should also be conducted to understand why the things that functioned properly were effective and why failures were ineffective. Brutal honesty and focus on process are essential to be effective in this endeavor.

5. Don’t Over-Adjust

It can be a tendency of executives driving problem-solving activity to make immediate adjustments when they learn that, after a process has been changed to solve a problem, the problem re-emerges. Remember that occasionally the cycle-time to incorporate solutions is longer than the frequency of emergence. This means that, while the problem is being solved and the process modified, other problems may occur that escape the containment strategy -- particularly if all root causes are not yet understood. In this case, it is important to identify which problem manifestations occurred because of failed containment and which occurred because the new process is still faulty. Focus on root cause of the failure here is essential for final resolution.

By carefully solving the problems within our operation, we can consistently increase profitability and create more output with fewer resources. It’s essential to do a great job of problem solving -- every time!

Jason Piatt is president of Praestar Technology Corp., a provider of consulting and training services to manufacturers in the Mid-Atlantic region specializing in lean, Six Sigma & strategy formation.

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