Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some Problem-Solving Approaches

Executive Summary:
If you are installing a process improvement or continuous improvement program within your organization, pick a problem-solving approach to be the standard that fits your needs and your organization’s culture.

The Rest of the Story:
In other posts I have promoted the idea of developing our own process improvement or continuous improvement programs.  Programs such as Lean and Six Sigma are popular and effective, but they may not be right for everyone. 

If you have decided to install your own flavor of improvement methodology, one of the critical elements needed is a standard problem-solving approach.  Let me briefly describe some of the approaches that I have encountered from a variety of methodologies to give you some ideas for your own, or some options from which to choose.

Over the years, I have become versed in a wide variety of design, development, improvement, and problem-solving methodologies.  Each one had it’s own recipe for how to solve problems.  All of them have been effective.  Let me describe some of them.  My hope is that you will find the information useful in developing your own, or selecting one that fits your own culture and needs.

I’ll title them according to the acronym and/or methodology from which they are derived.  You will not need to call them by any title but your own.  Do what works for you.

Six Sigma’s DMAIC:
The Six Sigma approach works very well.  As much as it may appear to be more steps, or to require more investigation or analysis than others, it is what you make it.  I have been able to use it on 10-minute problem-solving challenges, as well as multi-year strategic programs.

The DMAIC acronym stands for Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control.  I’m a big fan of approaches that insist on defining and scoping the problem first.  I find that coming to agreement on exactly what the problem is tends to be a roadblock to efficient and effective resolution if not done effectively up front.

If your culture is one in which calculating and presenting the business value of your improvement efforts is expected, then the Measure and Control components of this approach are very helpful.  The Measure step forces your improvers to determine performance before they make any changes.  Then, in the Control step, your improvers will again verify that the new performance is stable and also that the improvement is genuine.  These steps really facilitate calculation of business impact and stable, sustainable improvements.

The Analyze step is focused on understanding root cause.  Subsequently the Improve step is concerned with installing an improvement that prevents or otherwise manages the root cause.

Performed in sequence and with the correct intent for each step, the DMAIC approach is both versatile and effective.  It is also fairly easy to learn.  Be sure to include some fundamental tools and skills to facilitate each step of the approach in your own program’s toolbox.

Deming’s PDCA Improvement Cycle:
Deming gave us the Plan-Do-Check-Act formula.  One important thing to understand about this formula is that it is typically depicted as a cycle (circle), not as a linear 1-2-3-4 process.  In other words, your use of the formula may begin at any step.

For example, you might initiate the approach by “Checking” on the performance of a particular process.  Based on what you find, you might need to take some action such as containment or mitigation to get control of some undesirable output.  Then you would Plan to fix or improve the process and execute or “Do” your plan.  Then you will Check to see that your outcome matches your expectations and take any Actions necessary to further fix or improve it, etc.   The Act step is also often used to standardize the solution across related processes.

If you are intending to begin an improvement effort, which is not inspired by a sudden finding, the cycle typically begins by Planning your project.  I like this one because it clearly emphasizes that one should plan the effort, and then follow up after executing the plan to make sure that the improvement is doing what is intended and correcting any incomplete or insufficient outcomes.

This approach, however, is not as clear as others in terms of specifically directing the gathering of information or defining the problem.  You will need to decide if such tasks should be explicitly directed for your organization, or if such direction would be insulting to your personnel’s natural skill set.

Value Methodology Job Plan:
The Value Engineering science has a formula for executing projects.  It includes a Pre-Study, Value Study, and Post Study list of actions.  For the sake of a problem solving approach, we’ll look at the phases of the Value Study portion of the job plan.

The Value Study sequence is as follows:  Information Phase, Function Analysis Phase, Creative Phase, Evaluation Phase, Development Phase, Presentation Phase.  The phases are designed around engineering or re-engineering a product as a general rule, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful for solving a wide variety of problems.

In the Information Phase, the team collects data on the problem and establishes the scope of the problem or project.  I’ve already said that I find this activity to be very valuable.  The Function Analysis Phase is centered on establishing the “hows” and “whys” of the solution or process in question.  In other words, you evaluate how things are currently accomplished and why, and look for opportunities to make corrections or improvements.  It also includes a breakdown of costs for each element.

The Creative Phase is where the team brainstorms, proposes, and otherwise conceives of various possible solutions or improvements.  Then the possibilities are weighed or tested and selected in the Evaluation Phase.  The Development Phase includes the development and execution of the improvement or solution, and the Presentation Phase consists of reporting the results of your efforts.

If your organizational culture has a tendency to jump to solutions without sufficient thought or planning, the Value Study approach can help you reign in such behavior.  Its strength is the promotion of creative problems solving followed by evaluation and rational decision-making.

That is not to say that it can’t also be done very quickly.  With experience and understanding, teams can take a look at a single, obvious solution, evaluate quickly whether it really is a good solution and then act appropriately.  I’ve seen this approach used on a wide variety of problems very successfully and have used it myself.

I’ve encountered the STRIDES approach through some of my efforts in Lean, though I’ve often used Deming’s Improvement Cycle and the Six Sigma approach on Lean projects as well.  STRIDES stands for Situation, Target, Research, Implementation, Do it, Evaluate, Standardize.

This approach is very structured and leaves little room for missing an important activity.  I suspect it may have been born out of putting some more structure into Deming’s Plan part of the Improvement Cycle, but that is just my own speculation.

In the Situation step we establish the current performance or circumstances.  We then establish a Target performance or condition and Research what is needed to get to that target condition.  Once we have established our baseline knowledge, we build a plan in the Implementation step.  (Plan might be a better descriptor for the step, but it fowls up an easy to remember acronym)  The Do-it step is pretty self-explanatory.  Like some of the methods above, we examine what is working and what isn’t in the Evaluate step, and then make our working solution a standard for all such processes or similar functions in the Standardize step.

This is perhaps the most self-explanatory of the formulas.  It contains more steps than most, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be executed quickly an easily for rapid problem solving.

Accept, Adapt, Act:
This one I borrowed from self-defense martial arts.  I know it seems esoteric, but bear with me a moment.  This approach is more philosophical and less directly instructional compared to the STRIDES formula, for example, but it has its place.

I like this one for cultures with a bad case of finger pointing syndrome.  It’s difficult to solve any problem when the team is more concerned with who’s at fault or who should own the problem than in getting things fixed.  The Accept step communicates that we need to recognize the facts of the situation and that it is what it is regardless of who should have done what.  I like to use this step to gather the facts of the situation and clearly define the problem as a phenomenon, not a person.

I like to use the Adapt step to examine options and ways to prevent the problem or improve the process and decide on the best course of action.  The “adapt” terminology emphasizes the idea of dealing with the problem and it implies a change of behavior, which can be very important when it comes to solving process problems.  The Act step is obviously where I promote the execution or implementation of the solution.

This one doesn’t explicitly drive the gathering of before and after performance and reporting business benefits.  However, in cultures that are very resistant to continuous improvement programs, it is very short and easy to adopt, and it helps to break down barriers because of the language it uses.  It’s easy to install this one as basic common sense and avoid the perceptions of “goofy” acronyms or “insulting” or “childish” formulas for something that should be intuitive.

Above are a handful of different problem-solving approaches from a variety of methodologies.   If you see one that looks like a god formula for your organization, then use it.  Modify the words or acronyms to suit your business language if you like.  Build your own if you don’t like what is above. 

If you decide to build your own, I hope that the brief insights that I have included will give you some ideas for what you do or don’t want in your own formula.  The most important advice I have is to keep your formula simple and easy to understand and follow.  Simple is best, and generally the most versatile for a wide variety of problems.

If you decide to use one of the formulas above, I recommend some inexpensive, basic instruction on the methodology so you can get a better understanding of the intent of each step.  In the interest of space, I could not give any of the methods above the justice deserved to truly describe how to follow them properly.

I highly encourage any organization to adapt or adopt a problem-solving approach that best fits its culture.  I’m a big fan of custom solutions instead of canned.  Give it some thought, share your ideas with your trusted peers and teammates and try it out.  In the long run, I think you will be happier with your own selection than with one someone pushed on you because it works for them.

Stay wise, friends.

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