By Christoph Goldenstern, Kepner-Tregoe

Proactive Problem SolvingProactive problem solving is all about identifying problems and resolving them before the impacts are felt by the business.  What is the impact of an event that never occurs?  There isn’t one.  While not all problems can be avoided entirely, there are often early warning signs that indicate that a problem is developing.  These ‘smoke signals’ are only of value to you if you know what to look for and can take preemptive action to avoid a firestorm. 

Problem management is a process and the key to proactive problem solving is understanding each step in the process – what the signals are telling you and what you need to do with the information.

Monitoring and Instrumentation

The first step in the problem management lifecycle is all about keeping a lookout for signs of trouble. This requires having the right monitors, sensors and collectors in place to generate data about how activities and processes are performing.  You need to monitor both individual components and entire workflows to ensure you don’t miss anything.  Monitors can help you identify things like speed, accuracy, waste and operating environment characteristics that describe your process.  They can also measure things like volume, speed and quality characteristics of your production outputs and business process outcomes. 

Proactive problem-solving starts with generating the right set of data about your processes and systems to give you as much early warning as you can get.  Many organizations are looking to new technologies like IoT devices, embedded sensors in manufacturing systems and standardized telemetry capabilities in their IT systems to offer additional real-time insights into their operations.

Turning Monitoring data into alerts.

It’s great that you have monitors and instrumentation collecting data, but to identify problems, you will need to filter and organize the signal data to help you figure out what is ‘normal’ versus data signaling there is a problem.  This is where process control and problem-solving methodologies come in.  These methods can help you identify when something is outside of expected range of tolerance, analyze potential incidents and outages before they turn into crisis situations and identify patterns that indicate something in your process might need a deeper assessment. 


The sooner you can separate incidents from events, the sooner you can diagnose and take steps to actually resolve them.  Effective problem diagnosis eventually comes down to people and how well they are able to identify “deviations” from natural performance variation.  This initial situational appraisal step is often times overlooked, but essential when wanting to take meaningful action. 

There are 4 key components that your employees will put to use in diagnosing problems:

  1. Tools
  2. Knowledge
  3. Skills
  4. Data

Of these components, knowledge and skill are typically the ones within your immediate control.  Successful proactive problem-solving hinges on your staff, first and foremost of all, being able to gather the most relevant data, visualize the cause-effect relationships as well as the “environmental circumstances” and from there work towards the underlying root causes.

Decision Making

Once you understand the cause of a problem, there are likely different actions you can take to resolve it.  Each alternative will likely have its own risks, costs, benefits, and implications to your organization so making informed decisions is essential.  Some of the factors that your decision makers should consider are:

  • Cost/Benefit of each alternative
  • Risk of and confidence in the proposed solution
  • Balancing short-term and long-term effectiveness
  • Full vs. partial mitigation of the business impact
  • Negative impacts of not taking action

In proactive problem-solving situations, decision makers will often find themselves weighing the impacts of avoiding the anticipated problem event against the impact of disrupting operations to avoid the event.  When this happens, risk management is essential to prepare for unintended consequences and their impact.

Proactive action

What makes proactive problems solving such a powerful tool for businesses is the ability to initiate actions BEFORE the business realizes that a problem is occurring (or reoccurring in another part of the business).  The proactive action can take many forms, from preventative maintenance, tune-ups and optimization of operations to specific process changes resulting from problem analysis.  Good hygiene practices, patching, data management and frequent health checks can prevent problems from occurring in the first place.  Applying fixes in a timely manner can help mitigate the impact of problems that already occurred. 

By paying attention to the signals coming from your environment, diagnosing them quickly and making data-based decisions – you will be able to implement proactive actions to turn your potential problems into non-events.