Developing an Army of Problem Solvers

Recognizing the context of our work:

Many organizations find themselves in a position where they are in constant reaction to issues that disrupt the work being carried out. Repeatable and predictable output becomes a condition that does not happen as often as desired. Our people end up working in an environment, where to be successful, they need to make heroic effort. As a result, the organization’s key people are those known for putting the fires out the fastest. An area supervisor or maintenance person becomes the area champion of problem solving. Unfortunately, these same fires will likely come back at another inconvenient time. This pattern of activity becomes the norm for our people. The daily problems they deal with range from material shortages, poor quality raw materials, machine problems, staff shortages, incorrect BOM’s and training issues. As we expect these things to happen, over time we lose an urgency to resolve them because they are normal.

Breaking the pattern:

There are several things we need to do to break this cycle. First, we need to define a condition which represents a new norm. This can be as easy as defining what a good day looks like. We need to set the mark on what winning looks like and make it a daily expectation. This may take some thought if work outputs are always changing due to product or service changes, and in this circumstance, it will take some commitment to define winning on a shift to shift basis.

Without daily expectations of output, it is difficult for our people to know how they are doing. Simple and clear targets need to be created and these targets need to be such that the value generators have great influence in getting results that match these targets. These meaningful or smart targets/metrics play a critical role in defining what normal should be.

Second, after metric creation, we can stand back and objectively look at how the world is operating in comparison to how we believe it should be operating. What were the conditions that prevented us from hitting our targets? We need to quantify the frequency and duration of these issues. There will be many things that can arise that make it difficult to achieve repeatable and predictable outcomes. With some basic data collection by the people who run our processes, we can pinpoint where to start our problem-solving journey.

Third, we need to define problem ownership. Acknowledging that not all problems are the same and that correcting these problems may be done by different teams is important and needs to be clearly defined early in the process of problem solving. Typically, problems are recognized closest to the point where value is being generated. The viewpoint of problem resolution starts in the value zone and perspective of control is from the eyes of the value generator. There will be issues that fall within the realm of control for the value generator and other issues that they cannot control. When problems are identified, ownership of these problems must be assigned.

Finally, after ownership designation, time becomes an important commodity. Allocation of time to develop plans or countermeasures of the prioritized problems is essential. If the realm of control lies with the value generator, then measures must be made to backfill their roles while these countermeasures are being deployed. Your organization must create a schedule for problem solving. This can be done if the appropriate organizational structure is present. In many organizations, the value generators dedicate their entire day to creating value or in other words, committed to direct labor. In developing an army of problem solvers, commitment by senior leadership to allocate time for problem solving at all levels of the organization is critical. Investing in our people helps our people by empowering them and providing them time to solve problems and this becomes the foundation of an organization who wants to grow with its people.

Recognize effort:

No single problem solving cycle is likely to eliminate the chaos in our value zones but incremental improvement will be seen over several cycles. Our leadership needs to recognize the teams involved in making improvements in value zones. Moreover, an ongoing involvement in improvement cycles is important for leadership as additional resources may need to be assigned to help achieve the targeted results.

Getting started:

Take the first step in this important improvement journey by attending my upcoming workshop on Aug. 9 at Menasha Corporation in Neenah, WI: Developing Problem Solvers with A3.



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