By John Ager, Kepner-Tregoe

Too often problem solving is like firefighting: a reactive short-term response to stabilize and contain an out-of-control situation. In a best-case scenario, this response limits the scope of damage and allows for a quick resumption of normal business. Worst-case, it can lull us into complacency. We ignore the incremental cost of each successive problem and before long we’ve accumulated a load of “fire debt” such as personnel hours lost, parts swapped out, customer dissatisfaction and lost opportunities for systemic improvements.

Firefighting is a short-term reaction to a problem that in some cases could have been prevented. Like firefighters, effective problem solvers recognize that there are different types of fires—or problems—requiring different approaches for effective resolution. Initially problem-solving begins with effective situational awareness, that is, identifying problems as quickly as possible, ideally before any damage is done.

Initially problem-solving begins with effective situational awareness, that is, identifying problems as quickly as possible

If we don’t know the cause of a problem, the only actions we can take are adaptive: to minimize the problem’s effects. Adaptive actions can be effective interim actions that buy time while cause is found. But, when adaptive actions become permanent, they can be inefficient and problematic. For example, an operational team we were working with was tackling some ongoing problems at their facility. One issue was a pump that was regularly failing. It was used to empty a reservoir that collected a leak. Instead of addressing the pump, we helped them find the cause of the leak and take effective action with an inexpensive repair, obviating the need for the reservoir and the pump.

Finding cause has the potential for not only leading to resolution of your problem but also avoiding other related problems. Finding cause requires gathering facts about the problem that help focus and narrow the search for cause and the data needed to confirm and prove cause. Once cause is known, problem solving can be extended to find the “cause of the cause.” For example, applying the logic of the 5 Whys can help surface systemic causes, identify additional damage the cause created or additional scenarios where the cause could be at work.

Gathering facts about the problem helps focus and narrow the search for cause and the data needed to confirm and prove cause

Once we know cause, to take effective action, we need to choose the best way forward. Sometimes resolution is obvious: someone put a part in upside down, flip it and now it works. But resolution often involves making the best-balanced choice that will meet current and future expectations. This requires understanding those expectations, addressing the cause of “fires,” evaluating how well the different alternatives satisfy them and considering any risks associated with the favored alternative. For example, many restaurants dependent on seasonal, summer labor struggled to find the right solution to current staffing shortages. In consultation with year-round staff, daily sales data and other considerations, one restaurant owner/chef resolved the issue for the summer by staying closed three days a week. He determined that the revised schedule was the best-balanced choice. With fewer hours, the chef focused on simplifying the menu and eliminating less profitable offerings. Staff appreciated time off during the summer and diners filled the restaurant on the limited days, minimizing lost revenue.

Effective problem solving shouldn’t stop at resolution; it needs to include effective actions against fires that have not yet happened due to potential problems in the future. To take effective action we need to understand what risks to focus on and the causes of those risks, so we can take preventive actions to lower their probability, plan contingent actions to lower their seriousness, and set triggers to increase their detectability. For example, in the simple resolution of properly installing an upside-down part, the corrective action addresses the presenting problem but does not look to the future to prevent it from recurring. A risk-based approach might involve re-designing the parts, or the installation process, or the fixtures used to install the parts to make the correct installation easier than the upside-down installation. In addition, training, signage, additional inspections, or other measures might be appropriate to reduce the probability of occurrence, decrease seriousness, and increase detectability if it does occur.

Avoiding fires—preventing problems—is the best way forward despite a lack of heroics. To be proactive and take effective, long-term actions that prevent “fires” requires understanding the nature of the problems we are facing, and then gathering, sorting and analyzing information that leads to sound conclusions and effective, meaningful action.

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About KT

Kepner-Tregoe has empowered thousands of companies to solve millions of problems. KT provides a data-driven, consistent, scalable approach to clients in Operations, Manufacturing, IT Service Management, Technical Support, and Learning & Development. KT provides a unique combination of skill development and consulting services, designed specifically to reveal the root cause of problems and permanently address organizational challenges. Our approach to problem solving will deliver measurable results to any company looking to improve quality and effectiveness while reducing overall costs. We empower you to solve problems.