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IMA Executive News & Views Blog

Common Pitfalls in Problem Solving

by Shankar Anant

IMEC is an IMA Member

In most businesses, the one common but fundamental skill that is much needed, yet mostly lacking, is the skill of Problem Solving. Where this becomes rather apparent is within those companies pursuing a continuous improvement journey. It isn’t a stretch to say that all continuous improvement tools/practices are built around some form of problem solving. Ironically, many of these companies have devoted time and resources to the task of training their associates but pervasive success is elusive.

Here are some common lessons learned from deploying problem solving across many companies:

  1. What problem?

Like an Ostrich burying its’ head in the sand, we pretend that the problem didn’t occur! Why does this happen? There are many reasons for this but it all comes down to this: it is an admission that we have chosen the path of We don’t have time to work on this. Problems allow us to use our brains, so problems are actually opportunities.

  1. Treat symptom versus root cause.

Symptoms must be treated, but what to say about a pervasive habit of only dealing with symptoms? There are many reasons for this, but it comes down to the ubiquitous availability of over-the-counter medicine– duct tape, shims, hammers, etc. The proverbial bandage. Unfortunately, we will spend much more time and resources once the problem overwhelms the temporary solution. “Pay me now” is always better than “pay me a lot later.”

  1. Try to solve “big” problems.

Every business has small problems and large ones. Rather frequently though, small unsolved problems end up becoming big problems. Associates are made to feel like heroes for taking on big problems. No matter the person’s skill, big problems are quite simply difficult to solve. End world hunger, indeed.

  1. Solution looking for a problem.

As human beings, we have many shortcomings but one of the most insidious ones in problem solving is our attachment to a prior conclusion. This really comes down to the lack of willingness to meet the problem where it is. We withdraw to the comfort of our prior conclusion, our preconceived solution; no matter what the problem is. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  1. Opinion versus fact-based approach.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion! The dictionary definition of opinion: a judgment one holds as true. While solving a problem, whose opinion do we go with? Best is to treat the problem as a person and go with his/her opinion. The good news is that Mr. or Mrs. Problem is built on facts versus opinion. In God we Trust, everyone else bring data.

  1. What problem are we working on?

This is subtle but an often overlooked pitfall. We find ourselves trying to solve “something”. But we clearly have not thought about what problem, exactly, it is that we are working on. We may fix something but not the real problem. Work on everything.

  1. Blame someone first.

The joke is that the first step in problem solving is to first blame someone. Hmmm… Where may have we seen this exchange in pleasantry? The worst thing about this in problem solving is that the person blamed may be the exact person who holds the key to opening the problem solving door. And what do you expect with future problems? Look under the carpet! If the business is serious about the continuous improvement culture, please don’t let Whodunit? happen.

  1. Not involving / listening to the one closest to the problem.

Not everyone is a Matlock or a Columbo or a Monk, who can piece together all of the pieces of the murder scene in their minds! Why do businesses ask “someone else” to solve problems? It is a lack of empowerment. Front line associates are supposed to keep doing whatever they are always doing. Except problem solving, there are other experts for that! Problems don’t respect title.

  1. Vague problem descriptions.

Why do we accept problem statements like, “It doesn’t work” or “Short of parts”? Dr. Edward Deming gave us the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle. While there is profound philosophy behind this, there may be a check-the-box mindset in play while applying this. Plan. Do. Check. Act! A more effective description would be Plan-Plan-Plan-Plan-Plan-Do-Check-Act! “Formulation of a problem is often far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.” – Albert Einstein.

  1. Not systematic / scientific approach.

Rather frequently, companies – notably management – demand swift action when facing a problem. Well, there is nothing wrong with a bias for action but what often results is “cutting corners” in the rank and file. Of all things needed to foster a problem solving culture, training is the most important, allowing and expecting associates to be systematic. Socratic questioning works best! The reason is simple: the problem is usually smarter than us and will always win over shortcuts.

Reflection on these pitfalls would reveal a nugget of wisdom: what matters more than the problem itself is the human condition, specifically the mindset with which we approach problem solving. Being aware of these pitfalls will allow us to better utilize the many problem solving tools, methods and practices that are readily available out there.


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