Problem Solving: Simple Route to World Beating Performance

Continuous improvement is only possible within a framework comprising the systematic measurement of performance and the establishment and facilitation of structured processes to close the gaps between achieved performance and performance targets. Problem solving offers this to any organisation willing to make the necessary investments in competence acquisition and resolute enough to drive required changes in behaviour.

Whether your organisation is performing very poorly or operating at a high level of performance, closing performance gaps can be achieved through the use of the same problem solving techniques. Problem solving skills are therefore essential for any organisation seeking to improve, no matter where the organisation lies on the performance continuum.

What do these skills entail, and who in the organisation should have them? There are many views on this, and also various levels of problem solving skill available. Hence we have seen the emergence of approaches such as six sigma, complete with expert level practitioners / “black belts” and the like.  Many organisations claim to have achieved breakthroughs with these approaches, but I have seen them fail far more times than I have seen them succeed. The methodologies are sound, but their complexity makes any kind of coherent, organisation-wide implementation a very daunting task, even for very well-resourced organisations. The issue really is that problem solving should not be so complex as to require an enormous time commitment from staff who already have full and busy jobs to fulfil. Problem solving skills should be complementary to a host of core technical skills, not the primary skill of any individual. The exceptions may be so called internal “change agents” or external specialists who teach problem solving techniques and facilitate problem solving events.

My view is therefore that organisations should rather start “small”. Establish meaningful, quantifiable goals at every level of the organisation, with targets for each. Now set about tracking performance, and insisting on the use of formal problem solving tools to deal with stubborn performance gaps. Establish a common problem solving process at all levels of the organisation, and train employees in a few simple root cause analysis techniques. Ensure that feedback loops are built into your approaches, in line with PDCA. Training in problem solving techniques should not overshadow heavy investments in technical skills, such that each employee becomes a subject matter expert in his/her area of influence before becoming a competent problem solver. Failure to do this is I believe one of the biggest reasons that performance improvement initiatives fail. Document formal problem solving efforts for future reference, and store these documents, preferably electronically in a searchable format. The above are the “bare bones” of what is needed in establishing problem solving as a vital cog of performance improvement. This foundation can however get your organisation far down the path to sustainable performance improvement.

A key approach when implementing problem solving is to not only use problem solving tools to deal with deviations in performance, but also as a means of designing systems that prevent these deviations in the first place. This makes organisations more resilient in terms of maintaining high levels of performance. This preventive approach to performance management can take the form of robust short-interval controls, and can be encapsulated in various systems, from quality management systems to computerised maintenance management systems. As each problem is tackled, learnings can be integrated into current management systems to prevent the same problem from recurring. Given that any one problem can result from a range of potential causes, this approach will not yield immediate results, but systems will be enhanced with every iteration, and eventually the frequency of problems will reduce and a more stable performance platform will be established.

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