Certainties of Life — Death, Taxes, and Problems?

Team 1 Plastics’ Team Members used Fishbone Diagram in Problem Solving

Problems – we’ve all got them – problems in our professional lives and problems in our personal lives. Maybe Benjamin Franklin should have added “problems” alongside death and taxes as another certainty of life. If we’re going to be successful in our personal and professional lives, those problems need to be solved.

In his blog, The Ultimate Problem-Solving Process Guide: 31 Steps and Resources, for Initative-One.com, Miles Anthony Smith gave this definition for problem solving:

– “the process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues”

Smith then wrote these encouraging statements: “Problem-solving is hard. It’s almost always more complex than it seems.”

It was the complexity of problem solving and its focus on continual improvement that led Team 1 Plastics, a plastic injection molding company for the transportation industry, to invest in some problem-solving training for its Team Members. According to Dave Sanford, Quality Manager for Team 1 Plastics, “Our teams solve problems every day, some problems are big and some are small, but they all need to be approached with the same method. We were good at correcting the symptom of a problem, but not necessarily at identifying the root cause.” And, identifying the root cause of a problem is vital to being able to solve it completely.

Team 1 chose Harbour Results, a company with which it already had a successful relationship, to lead the problem-solving training. During the training, the instructor introduced the ten participants to a structured problem-solving process and provided them with six different tools to use. The Team Members then broke into two groups to work on real-life problems that Team 1 Plastics needed to solve.

The first step in solving any problem, according to the author of How To Use Structured Problem Solving (for ProjectManagementHacks.com) is to “Identify the Problem.”

Sanford said that the group he was working with identified its problem as “Incorrect part quantities in some of the completed boxes, packed through an automated process.” They then verified the problem by counting the actual number of parts in the boxes after a production run. Each box was supposed to contain 2,000 parts, but they found that the average count per box was 1,992 parts.

Vance Bodell, Quality Engineer for Team 1 Plastics, was another participant in the problem-solving training and was a member of the group working on the other problem. That problem was identified as a customer’s comment that the quality of some parts that had been shipped to them was not up to standard. They claimed that the parts were “short shots.” (A short shot is the incomplete filling of a mold cavity which results in the production of an incomplete part.)

Both groups had identified their problems. It was time to move on to the next step.

Structure the problem” is step number two according to How To Use Structured Problem Solving. Structuring the problem often involves using pictures, models, or diagrams to represent the problem and identify the important issues.

According to Keith Glein, who wrote the blog, Problem Solving Structure on his website, discoveryoursolutions.com, “Structuring is the most fundamental activity you can do to solve your problems. Most structuring tools, techniques, and methods follow simple step-by-step processes; with each step being a building block in the problem-solving process. These steps are usually relatively easy to understand and use.”

Sanford said that during Team 1 Plastics’ problem-solving training, Harbour Results had provided the participants with six tools for structuring problems:

As a quick internet search will show you, these six are not the only tools available for structuring problems. “There is no wrong or right tool to use,” Sanford said. “Typically, the tool selected to use is by personal preference or specified by the customer.”

Bodell said that 5 Why was the tool that his group used for root cause analysis because, “that was what most people felt comfortable with.” Through the use of 5 Why, the group discovered that procedures, already in place for ensuring quality of parts, were not being followed and that these established rules were not being enforced.

The other group used the Fishbone diagram, Sanford said, “listing out contributors under the following categories: man, material, machine, method, and environment. We used that tool because most of the group had done very minimal, if any, structured problem solving in the past. The fishbone visually displays all potential contributors under each category, often improving brainstorming activities.”

Sanford said that his group “went on a Gemba walk to see the process running first hand. This step is very important because it gets everyone out in front of the problem to evaluate the whole process.” According to Wikipedia, “Gemba” is a “Japanese term meaning ‘the actual place,’” and a “Gemba walks denote the action of going to see the actual process, understand the work, ask questions, and learn.”

The group evaluated each contributing factor. “In total, there were 13 contributing factors,” Sanford said.

Develop Solutions, “Select a solution to the problem,” and “Implement a solution,” are steps three, four and five, according to How To Use Structured Problem Solving. “With a list of possible solutions on the table, it is now time to decide,” and then, “You put the solution into action.” And then, “Monitor for success.”

Sanford said that his group developed solutions for the 13 contributing factors, assigned priorities of correction, and then began implementing the solutions based on the priorities.

Next, it was time to “Monitor for success.” After completing four of the 13 items, Sanford said that another study was performed “to verify that we were headed in the correct direction. The data shows that we did improve greatly on the count per box, and our new average was 1999.5 pieces per box.” Sanford added that the “remaining nine items are still being worked on, and we expect to eventually get to 2,000 pieces for our average – which, of course, is what customers expect.”

In reflecting about the problem-solving training, Sanford added, “After the training, it was evident in Team Members that when a problem was brought up, they took a moment to analyze the problem, do some background checking, narrow down what was causing it, and, eventually, get down to the root cause and get the problem solved.”

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