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It is commonly believed that to foster a problem-solving culture, managers must serve as mentors and cultural leaders—building the systems and atmosphere that support and encourage team members at all levels to problem-solve effectively. 

That is absolutely true. However, once these problem-solving roles are understood, truly developing an effective problem-solving culture will require the following three elements;

  1. Adopting a formal, standardized problem-solving methodology for the organization 
  2. Integrating the formal system into the organization in a way that capitalizes on existing roles, responsibilities, and systems
  3. Embracing a change management process to ensure people have the training and coaching to accept and perform new problem-solving functions 

In this first article in a three-part series on the topic, we’ll expand on the first step. 

Adopting a standard problem-solving methodology

Establishing a standard methodology for the organization, brings synergistic benefits beyond the skills of the individuals. If the methodology is developed and deployed well, then you stand to benefit in several ways. 

Deciding on which investigation or Root Cause Analysis methodology to use is an important first step. This choice will determine what language is used and guides the basic structure or process flow.

It’s common for companies to take a layered approach using a combination of a simple process as a first pass before determining whether to ramp it up to another methodology that can handle a more complex investigation.

Some companies also differentiate between Safety and Environmental issues and Production and Process issues using different methodologies for the different types of problems. This requires multiple different training courses, which is more costly and can spread resources thin. We recommend applying one common methodology, , that is scalable for different levels of complexity, and is applicable to all types of problems. This results in training efficiencies and eliminates ambiguity around what process should be used.

Benefits of a Standard Methodology

A common terminology 

Speaking the same language leads to more accurate communications and fewer misunderstandings. A common terminology also allows you to comprehend what was understood by the investigating group and how they arrived at their corrective actions. Using a specific and standard language means that we can audit or evaluate an investigation report because we know the process. We know how they got there. We can then determine if the report meets an acceptable standard. If you don’t know the process the investigation group used or followed, then the ability to evaluate an investigation report is difficult.

Faster resolution of problems 

If all problems and solutions are approached in a similar manner, you will start to realize efficiencies. Solving problems faster may lead to cost savings or performance gains. The more you do it the easier it gets and the faster an investigation becomes. More people who are knowledgeable and competent in the use of the common investigation methodology also helps to speed up the process. You are preaching to the converted who should intuitively know what is missing or what has been done or, even better, what is still required.

Better teamwork 

On the surface, problems might appear to be isolated occurrences, but events leading up to the problem often cut across departmental and disciplinary boundaries. Therefore, finding the most efficient, cost-effective solutions dictates that experts from various teams work together. When we use a common language across these disciplines this interaction becomes more purposeful and allows people to engage productively in pursuit of analyzing the problem.

Seamlessly include new employees

With a common methodology behind you, it’s possible to assimilate new employees in the middle of a problem-solving session in a “plug and play” manner. New members will be familiar with the steps in the process and will be able to quickly integrate and contribute during an ongoing investigation. This can only happen if these “new” contributors are familiar with the investigative process being used.

Economies of scale in training 

Training employees in the methodology is much more efficient when there is only the one methodology, and per-employee training costs will fall. This is also about getting a critical mass of people who understand the investigation process and are competent in its use. Limiting training to a core group can lead to these few individuals being subjected to work overload. Spreading the training out to multi-departments and individuals helps distribute the time requirements to conduct these investigations, across more people.

An example of how a common problem-solving methodology gets results

Let’s look at a hypothetical incident involving the manufacture of an off-spec batch of fertilizer. On the surface, this would appear to be strictly a quality assurance problem, but it might be discovered that the bad batch was caused by a problem with a blender not working properly and that this was due to a lack of preventive maintenance on a blender, which in turn was caused by an IT breakdown impacting preventive maintenance scheduling on the blender. 

It would be difficult for the quality manager—or quality department for that matter—to develop the most effective solutions on their own. Rather, the solution(s) should come from a team that includes members from quality, maintenance, and IT; and should consider the objectives, strengths, and limitations of everyone involved. 

As this example shows, when dealing with more complex problems, the levels and fields of expertise needed to troubleshoot the issue will not be known until the various events leading up to the occurrence of the problem have been identified. At this point, experts—and others with ancillary knowledge of the problem—must be brought into the process of finding workable solutions. 

If everyone has completed the standardized training, they can immediately apply their full energy to solving the problem at hand—instead of trying to decipher the thought processes of the problem-solving team. Having in place an organization wide, structured methodology with a common terminology and approach to problem-solving, and a systematic investigative process, simplifies the investigation and makes it more efficient.

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