By Choong Jeng Yi, Kepner-Tregoe

With global competition increasing at an alarming rate, your company’s financial performance and success in the marketplace demand that your company’s operations be at peak-performance at all times. Unfortunately, things happen… people make mistakes, equipment breaks, and processes that worked well last year may be slowing you down today. Each of these things points to potential problems in your operations. Don’t be alarmed, every company faces them. Here are 3 common problem-solving strategies that can help you keep your operations humming and customers happy.

Optimize your equipment

Most companies that deal with physical materials and products have a high level of operational dependency on equipment, both for process automation and as the tools to enable employee activities. The capital costs to acquire equipment and the operating costs of maintaining and running it often make up a significant portion of these company’s operating expenses. If this sounds familiar, a problem-solving strategy designed to optimize the value from your equipment may be the right choice for you.

The industry leading measure for evaluating equipment performance is called Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and is a model that looks at the amount of time your equipment is available, how well it is performing and the quality of products produced to determine actual performance relative to your equipment’s potential. Increasing your OEE is a strong indicator of improved performance of operations in many companies. OEE is commonly used as a key performance indicator (KPI) in conjunction with continuous improvement processes such as Six Sigma, Lean and the Deming Cycle (PDCA) to identify actionable opportunities for improvement.

Focus on your people

Training EmployeesWhile manufacturing and production companies are heavily dependent on automated processes and equipment, they also rely on people to conduct successful problem solving and keep the automated processes running and equipment in tip-top condition. Improving productivity, satisfaction, creativity and removing friction in business processes can lead to greater quantity and quality of outputs from your operations.  Not surprisingly, successful problem solving (even in manufacturing companies) begins and ends with people.

People-centric problem solving isn’t just about solving problems. Problem solving starts with leveraging the passion, creativity and frustration of your employees to identify things that need to be fixed and opportunities for improvement. The more people feel involved, the greater (perceived) impact the solutions to the problems will have. This involvement continues into diagnosis and development of alternatives/recommendations to solve the problem. Often the people closest to the problems have the best perspective on how they can be solved and the potential un-intended consequences of alternatives. 

In people-centric operations, focus on the human factors of problem solving continue through implementation. While many companies believe the end goal is solution adoption, highly successful problem-solving organizations know that the end goal is lasting impact and reaping the benefits for an extended period of time. This means changing the mindsets, skillsets, activities and behaviors of employees to integrate the solution into the day-to-day work environment and organizational culture.

Value-chain optimization

At the core of any company’s operations lies the construct of a value-chain – a sequence of activities that transform raw materials, capabilities and resource capacity into finished goods and services that are perceived as valuable to some consumer.  Using value-chain optimization as a problem-solving strategy is a good approach for those companies needing a well-grounded problem-solving approach that can be easily understood by everyone in the organization.

Using the value-chain construct to solve problems is relatively simple. The reason activities take place is to add value for the end-customer. Activities that do not create value, those that are delivering less value than expected and activities that are not taking place (but should be) all represent potential problems for the organization. This characterization may create a list that is quite long, but don’t be alarmed - not all potential problems should be solved. Priority should be given to those that create the most incremental value at the lowest cost. 

Effective problem-solving is critical to ensuring the ongoing performance of your company’s operations.  Often the best approach involves blending different strategies together to meet your unique organizational needs. The problem-solving experts at Kepner-Tregoe can work with you to understand the dynamics of your operations and culture and help select and implement a problem-solving strategy to help you achieve and maintain peak operational performance.