Essentials of a “Problem Solving Culture”

The use of formal problem solving techniques to drive performance improvement is not new, yet few organisations seem able to fully leverage them to achieve sustainable performance. In my experience, simply training the workforce to use problem solving methodologies is not enough to make problem solving an effective tool. Often the failure of problem solving “change programmes” is blamed on an inability to make problem solving “part of the culture” of the organisation. Issues are identified with “poor change management” and the like, without clearly pinpointing exactly why the techniques did not take root. But what exactly is a “problem solving culture” and how should organisations go about building one? It’s an important question, since problem solving is at the heart of the lean movement and its predecessors, such as TPM. These participative approaches are acknowledged as being good practice, yet are devilishly difficult to get right.

Let me begin by expressing my views on what a problem solving culture is not. If your operations are fraught with daily challenges that employees have to navigate, and if plans have to made on a day-to-day basis to deal with some or other crisis, then you may have resourceful employees, but you do not have a problem solving culture. Organisations that have a problem solving culture are nothing if not structured. This structure does not have to be something that stifles creativity – in fact many problem solving techniques rely on creative thinking. But even creativity needs to operate within some kind of a framework to make it effective.

A problem solving culture goes beyond a change in mind-set. In addition to fostering changes in attitude towards problem solving, systems have to built at all levels of the organisation that support a problem solving process. Teaching staff a plethora of root cause analysis techniques in the absence of a robust process and the infrastructure required to support that process simply does not work. Below is an example of the problem solving process I use to analyse and solve operational problems.

The problem solving process itself has to be placed within a wider framework that makes it relevant (such as a robust performance management system), and embedded into the systems and work practices the organisation uses for routine management. Hence the organisation should take the stance that all performance improvement is to be delivered through formal problem solving, and then go about putting the systems in place to support that approach. These systems could include:

  • Regular performance monitoring, with deviations from performance being the first phase of problem detection. This is not only about outputs, but also about monitoring the inputs that drive those outputs. The best way to discover those inputs is coincidentally through the use of problem solving techniques.
  • Training of all staff in an agreed generic problem solving process.
  • Training of all staff in root cause analysis, solution development and solution selection techniques.
  • A standard risk assessment process, which is to be applied to every potential solution, assisting with the avoidance of unintended consequences.
  • A process for “performance testing” of implemented solutions, to confirm achieved results.
  • The development of templates to be used in conducting problem solving, all of which are integrated into the quality management system of the organisation – these could be documents that have to be completed over the course of problem solving, electronic files that could be populated or better yet, customised software tools which could be web-based and allow for integration with a database.
  • Robust review processes to assess the impact of implemented solutions and the problem solving programme as a whole on local performance and on the organisation’s wider performance. These should be integrated into routine, not be something “extra”.
  • Provision of resources to enable employees to act across the entire problem solving life cycle in their area of responsibility, from problem detection through to the review of implemented solutions. For solutions requiring capital investment, a clear road map has to be laid out to allow problem solving teams to be able to justify the investment required.

With this infrastructure in place, continuous improvement can now be implemented in a structured way, with improvement efforts directed towards the achievement of formal organisational goals. Importantly, structure results in the availability of historical data which, if interrogated properly, prevents the “wheelspin” associated with dealing with the same problems repeatedly, and prevents attempts to solve problems via anecdotal evidence.

As a final point, something that should not be overlooked is the need to supplement problem solving skills with technical skills. I often see organisations that invest heavily in the development of problem solving skills but not core technical skills, yet still expect performance improvement. The result is that the problem solving techniques are blamed for being ineffective when in fact they can only work when supported by technical competence. If you are an accountant, no amount of training in problem solving techniques will equip you to solve the problems a medical doctor is expected to solve. So why expect staff to be able to solve problems in their areas of influence if they are not first technical experts in those areas? Effective problem solving happens when staff have both sound technical skills and a working knowledge of problem solving tools.

In summary, organisations with a strong problem solving culture measure performance relentlessly and make problem solving the centrepiece of their improvement efforts. They build systems that support problem solving at all levels. These systems are integrated into organisational routine, and are part of the formal management systems used to run the business. Employees are skilled at their own jobs first, and then skilled in problem solving techniques. Employees are also empowered to take any individual problem from detection through to final resolution, and to use the feedback from this process as input to further problem solving efforts.

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