Basics of Problem Solving

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have been certified/trained in many different methods of problem solving.  Some of them include Shainin Red X, Kepner-Tregoe Is/Is Not, the basics of Six Sigma and DMAIC, PDCA, SPC, and the list goes on and on.  Quite frankly, I have lost track of all the problem solving methods and tools I have used.

After many years of using all of these techniques, I have boiled problem solving down to just 4 basic steps that can be used/seen with any of the methods I mentioned above.

1. Identify Current State

2. Identify Ideal State

3. Analyze the Gap between Current and Ideal States

4. Attack!

Identify Current State: I firmly believe that you have to know where you are and what is happening before you can think about improving.  I have seen people throw everything out and just do step 2 and 4.  I don’t understand this, because they have almost always re-created some of the same headaches that they currently have or had in the past and then have to re-fix these issues.  You have not gotten where you are because everything was bad or wrong.  So what is good?  What is value added?  What is non-value added?  How does the process work?  Understand these things about your current situation and you will learn a lot about the process.

Identify Ideal State: I see some people want to identify the future state instead of the ideal state.  That can work, but I prefer the further sighted ideal state.  You won’t necessarily get to the ideal state by solving just this one problem, but you want to make sure you are heading in the direction of the ideal state.  You don’t want to create a countermeasure to a problem that is heading in a different direction than your ideal state.  Have you ever had a future state that isn’t aligned with your ideal state?  Do you want to start working in one direction only to be redirected later?  Define the ideal state, even if it is just bullet points, so you know that any countermeasure you put in place is directionally correct.

Analyze the Gap between Current and Ideal States: Now you must understand what it will take to get from where you are at to where you want to get.  How do we close the gap?  It may not fully close the gap but we are making progress towards the ideal state.  Sometimes you may find that you have to do a major process redesign or a big project.  Sometimes you may need to do smaller more manageable tasks to get there.  It is OK to not close the entire gap in one jump.  Just make progress.  If you make progress and have a plan, my experience has shown that you will get a lot of understanding.

Attack!: Now it is time to implement.  By implementation, I mean try out the countermeasures, verify the results, and make adjustments base on what was learned or make the new countermeasure part of the standards.  Basically, the Check and Act of PDCA.

This approach can work for simple problems like needing to reduce walking in a process.

1. Identify Current State – I walk 10 steps between my desk and the fax machine, 20 times per day = 200 steps.

2. Identify Ideal State – I don’t want to walk at all to the fax machine

3. Analyze the Gap – 200 steps per day is the gap, I can’t get a fax machine for my desk (not in the budget), but I can move the fax machine closer but I need to talk with others to make sure I’m not making more work on them.

4. Attack – Others are OK with me moving the fax machine.  I move it.  I am now walking 5 steps per trip, 20 times per day = 100 steps.  50% reduction.  That is the new standard now.

It also works for complex problems like creating single piece flow

1. Identify Current State –  A common tool used here is a Value Stream Map

2. Identify Future State – Create a future state Value Stream Map

3. Analyze the Gap – What projects and kaizen events do I need to do to reach my future state.  Develop an action plan.

4. Attack – Implement action plan.  Reflect on results and process of implementing and make adjustments as necessary.

I know this boils it down very simply, but there is a lot of work that has to happen in each step.  There are many tools/concepts that can be used to complete these steps, but remembering these four steps is a great start.

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Posted on July 9, 2010, in Problem Solving and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Two good points made:
    1) Highlighting the importance of documenting the current state. I learned early on this is how you ‘justify’ your lean efforts. Inevitably, at the end of the ‘day’, someone holding the cash will ask, “what did we get for our efforts”. You need to have an answer. The simple formula is the difference between where we started and where we ended.

    2) Keep the focus on the Ideal State, not the Future State. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line…head toward the Ideal. This can be very challenging. Sometimes, you need to paddle around obstacles or adjust for strong currents. Wavering back and forth in misguided directions should be viewed as waste.

    I like the 4-step approach given. Easy to remember. If you need a problem solving technique just to help you remember how to use it, it’s too complicated.

  2. Matt,

    This is a great summary of a good problem solving technique. As you note, PDCA, DMAIC, and the others have a common thread that serves as the foundation for Continuous Improvement. Thanks for sharing.

    Chris Paulsen

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