Nov 2, 2016 | Posted by Matt Elson
How do you solve a problem? Figure it out as it goes? Ask Dr. Google? See how others have solved it in the past? Trial and error? Ask a friend? Probably a little bit of all of the above.
Most of our day-to-day problems are resolved in this fashion, and for most problems, this might work. But, how often do some of those problems come back? For example, when was the last time your garage or kitchen stayed organized? Like any good home renovation ‘project’, a more refined approach usually gets the job done properly. This problem solving storyboard approach was developed in the 1970’s, tested and studied since the 1990’s in manufacturing. Most products you use on a day-to-day basis were likely engineered using this scientific method.
Toyota embraced and enhanced the scientific method of Plan, Do, Check, Act. This six steps approach to problem solving has been refined for over half a century by Toyota engineers to solve millions of problems in order to make the highest quality product and service, at the lowest costs and time. Let’s explore this 6 step process further using a simple process of, “Moving rocks up a hill”.
Step 1: Identify the Problem
How do we know it’s a problem? What is the context? Understand the initial perception of the problem within the context of the work and its impact to the current process. The first issue to tackle should be straight forward to solve and agreed upon by the team.
Take the simple process of “Moving rocks up a hill”, the rocks at the bottom of the steep hill need to be moved to the top for processing. The issue seems to be a single team member working exhaustedly using an inefficient cart.
Step 2: Grasp the Current Condition
What is actually happening? Compare it to what should be happening. Get a clear understanding of the issues first hand. Walk through the process from the beginning to end and back again with the team members. Gather the perceived issue and facts, collect and review data. Breakdown and clarify each aspect of the issues, from what is happening, to why it is happening this way, what should be happening, and by when.
In the rock example, the process is getting a pile of rocks from point 1 up the hill to point 3, using a cart at point 2. The process is taking too much of a team member’s effort because of using the cart with a set of square wheels. The process is also taking too long to complete because of the steep hill.
Step 3: Investigate the Causes
What are the symptoms? Where is the problem occurring? What is the root-cause of the issues at hand? Identify the signs that indicate there is a problem in the process. Find the exact point of the process where the problem is occurring. Observe, trackback the process together with the team members, or break it down into small stages until you reach the point where the problem occurred. Come up with potential causes of the problem and ‘ask why’ five consecutive times to tease out the roots of the problem.
Back to rock the example, the symptoms tell us the process is taking too long to complete and is stressful. The problem seems to be getting the rock into the cart, and up the hill. Some potential causes include too much rock to move, steep hill, not enough strength, and an inefficient cart. Narrow down these causes further and begin to address one root cause at a time.
Step 4: Select Countermeasures
How do you deal with the root cause? Which one should be fix first? Come up with countermeasures to test out your idea to address the root cause of the problem. Start by testing your idea out in small scale, one at a time, then move onto generating short-term fixes to control the problem until you develop permanent measures. Many failures are expected as better ideas are developed. Learn from the failures and incorporate the learning into the next iteration of experiments. Select the best countermeasure(s) based on the benefits offered to address the problem.
In the case of moving rocks up the hill, focus on one root cause at a time. Start with making the ineffective cart effective before moving to solve getting the rock up the hill in a timely manner with less human resources.
Step 5: Implement Countermeasures
Are all the resources needed available? Are the leaders onboard with the implementation of the changes? Check and make sure that all the resources (including the needed team members) are available. Make sure feedback has been documented by both ‘people that do the work’ and leadership. Track and observe the process to ensure that the countermeasures are effective in fixing the problem, and the transition to the permanent solution has been seamless and transparent.
Looks like rocks will be moving uphill in a streamlined fashion as the countermeasures are being implemented.
Step 6: Follow-Up
Are the countermeasures effective? Is the process running as it is supposed to? How can you prevent the problem from occurring again? Standardize the process to maintain control and prevent the problem from occurring again. Implement process confirmation at specific checkpoints to ensure that solution continue being effective. Review the approach for a better insight into future problems. Problems should be easier to spot as with this new process in place.
The six step process is the cornerstone to any good problem solving model or improvement framework. It is simple, refined and effective. The challenge will be to stick to doing all six steps and not stop half way or skip steps. There is no short cut to problem solving. Apply these steps properly will unlock the door to succeed in any business, in any industry.