Uptime: Problem Solving — A New Competitive Challenge
Bob Williamson | February 10, 2017
What do robots, integrated automation systems, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), ISO 55000 Asset Management Standard, TPM, RCM, Lean Manufacturing, and re-shoring of jobs have in common? Yes, they’re here, now, and defy many traditional ways of managing a business. But there’s more. The rapid implementation of these performance-improvement technologies and solutions has also accelerated the demand for systematic problem solving.
In my opinion, problem solving is the new competitive challenge thrust upon us by global competition, shortened product cycles, and the explosive adoption rate of integrated and interdependent technologies. The big question, with regard to remaining competitive, is how do we develop a problem-solving workplace?
Let’s start with the definition of a “problem.” According to businessdictionary.com, the word means “a perceived gap between the existing state and a desired state, or a deviation from a norm, standard, or status quo.” Based on that definition, for a problem to be a “problem,” there must be a standard from which we can determine if there is a problem, i.e. something defining the normal condition. This is where standard work (a defined way for performing a task) comes in. The same goes for reliability standards (equipment doing what it’s supposed to do), quality standards (defect-free products), and safety standards (injury-free workplaces). Given the fact that problems are deviations from expectations, identifying and solving them without standards can fuel guessing games of chasing false problems.
Before we can even begin thinking about problem-solving tools, however, we must consider the human side of the issue: Does a person have a problem-solving aptitude and, if so, what type? Here are several styles you might have encountered:
“Ostrich” approach. Some view problems as negatives, as opposed to opportunities for improvement. They tend to avoid considering solutions: “We can live with this problem, if we just . . . ”
“Denial” approach. Some people routinely fail to recognize or admit that the problem exists: “That’s not a problem. It happens all the time.”
“Always did it that way” approach. For some people, problem solving is more intuitive than systematic and structured. Past practices tend to frame their solutions to a problem: “Let’s try what we did the last time something like this happened.”
“Remove and replace” approach. Some specialize in the trial-and-error method (some solutions work, others don’t): “I’ve replaced most of the parts in the unit and it finally started working.”
“Yes, but” approach. Someone will miss the problem entirely, yet already be working on a solution: “I hear what you’re saying, but here’s what we need to do.”
“Work around” approach. Some people will look for ways to work around the problem rather than look for the cause: “I know it quit working, so we just put in a by-pass circuit to keep it running.”
“What do we know” approach. The most successful problem solvers take time to better understand the problem before beginning a systematic process of identifying options to pursue: “What happened? Was anything changed here before the problem occurred? Who was there at the time?”
Problem solving is more than RCA
Analyzing problems to determine their causes is a scientific discipline, of which there are a variety of proven processes. One key point here is “discipline.”
Root-cause analysis (RCA) not only requires a proven step-by-step process, it also depends on the human-performance discipline to adhere to that type of process—a standardized problem-solving approach embraced by the organization.
Another phase of problem solving is arriving at and establishing solutions that prevent a problem or its effects from recurring (or continuing). Arriving at a solution can also be an iterative process of trying potential solutions and analyzing the outcomes until a sustainable and affordable solution is determined.
RCA is more than problem solving
Whenever I think about problem solving, I’m reminded of my conversation with auto-racing’s Ray Evernham nearly 20 years ago. At the time, he was still serving as crew chief for Jeff Gordon, who, late in the 1992 Winston Cup season, had begun driving for Hendrick Motorsports, a top-level NASCAR race team.
As a consultant to the organization, I was focusing on Hendrick’s use of root-cause failure analysis in its problem-solving process (a very robust and rapid one). How delighted I was when Evernham explained that the team also performed root-cause “success” analyses, i.e., analyzing what went unexpectedly right, whether it was a win, an ultra-fast pit stop, or a zero-failure race. Wow.
A root-cause success analysis can turn the tables—from eliminating problems to repeating successes. Seeking answers to “what can we do consistently better,” which is a critical success factor in motorsports, can be just as valuable in plant and facility operations.
Troubleshooting is not necessarily solving problems
In the world of industrial and facilities maintenance, troubleshooting varies widely. At times the troubleshooting process involves removing and replacing parts one at a time until the defective one is located. (Not too scientific, but a common practice.)
Scientific troubleshooting requires a troubleshooter to truly understand the inner working of a device that is harboring the fault. That includes understanding components, systems, circuits, hardware, software, and firmware.
Again, the more the technician understands the device the more efficient and effective the troubleshooting process becomes.
But troubleshooting is only half the battle. Determining, then implementing, the correct solution and proving its success, is the end goal.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: For some troubleshooting tips, see this month’s feature “Boost Troubleshooting Skills at Your Site.”)
The ability to troubleshoot, perform root-cause analyses, and solve problems (or improve performance) requires disciplined human performance, i.e., adherence to proven processes.
Furthermore, those doing the problem solving must have the aptitude and ability to think through the variables in the problem-solving process and the associated equipment conditions. They must be able to understand what a pre-fault (or normal) conditions are and must be able to recognize fault conditions.
In my generation, we grew up taking things apart. Fixing things. Building things. We had access to tools and looked for things to do with them.
Shop classes and working on cars and other things around the house or farm helped build our confidence and respect for how “stuff” worked. Sometimes we got hurt (nothing serious); sometimes we damaged things. But that’s how we learned many of our skills.
Over time, many of us developed mechanical aptitudes along with a variety of abilities to put them to work. A solid mechanical aptitude and an understanding of basic cause-and-effect relationships are central to problem solving.
Sadly today, we’re witnessing the impact of exposing two generations to few, if any, shop classes. Individuals entering the workplace without problem-solving aptitudes and abilities are at a severe disadvantage. So are our industries. Growing effective problem solvers is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s plants and facilities.
Building a problem-solving mindset (or paradigm) in your organization takes people with the right skills and lots of practice. It also calls for a consistent and systematic approach to solving problems.
And, one more thing: A problem-solving mindset must be set from top management as a way of doing business. In the meantime, try testing your own skills with Mind Tools’ “How Good is Your Problem Solving?” online assessment.