Solve Problems Faster By Improving Your Problem Statement

Posted by on Aug 18, 2019 in Continuous Improvement, Problem Solving | 0 comments

Over the years I’ve seen many organizations struggle with solving problems.  They often lose focus and get side-tracked.  Sometimes because of someone’s opinion, they even go down the wrong path and they never get to the root cause.

A problem statement should be a concise description of an issue to be addressed or a condition to be improved upon.  It should identify a gap that exists between the current (problem) state and the desired (goal) state of a process or product.  It should always focus on the facts.

It is important to state the problem precisely because all the work to follow — the investigation, analysis, and explanation — will be directed at correcting the problem as it has been stated.  Problem statements that are too general and not sufficiently focused cause teams to be too broad in their investigation.  They often start considering other factors and variables that create noise and become the focal point.  Vague or general problem statements must be reworded to be more specific that name one object, one defect, or malfunction for which we wish to discover and explain the cause.  We need to be able to describe exactly what we see, feel, hear, smell, or taste that tells us there is a problem.  Let me give you a couple of examples.

Many years ago I was asked to solve a problem that had been going on for several years.  The problem statement was initially determined to be “damaged terminals due to shipping.”  Since the problem had been discovered by a Chinese customer and no other customer was complaining, the team determined that the damage must be the result of shipping because of all the transportation to the Chinese location.  They even validated their assumption by simulating the damage and adding extra packaging and protection to the terminals.  No one had even looked at the terminal make plant during their investigation.  The first thing I did was to ask for all the customer complaints and do an analysis of where, when, who, what, etc.  Two things emerged!  Most of the damaged terminal reels were coming from second shift and from two specific operators.  I grabbed the plant quality manager and we observed one of the operators.  It turned out that the damage was caused by the way the operator dropped the terminal reels into the shipping container and not transportation as the original team had assumed.

Recently I worked with a client that experienced a “de-lamination problem when bonding two materials together.”  In their investigation they considered the bonding temperature, the temperature and speed in the oven, mold dies, etc.  When I asked about the problem, they told me that the delimitation was evidenced by a bubble that appears under a bright light.  In addition, the de-laminations only occur during the summer months and not during the winter.  In analyzing the situation, I reasoned that oven temperature and speed were not causing the problem since they were constant all year long, but some other variable.  I focused on what was causing the bubble, which to me was either some gas given off by the material or water vapor.  During one of my visits we observed one of the parts had water droplets on them.  They stated that the water was used to prevent the parts from sticking together and had been used for quite some time.  We took some of the parts, added more water to them, and stuck them in the mold.   To everyone’s surprise, the parts exited the oven with severe de-lamination as evidenced by large bubbles when observed under the light.

However simple or complex a problem may seem, it is always worth the time and effort to do some initial investigation, i.e., walk the process, look at the various components, review relevant data, etc., to determine if what you’re observing is random or if there’s a pattern to what’s going on.  By doing this it allows you to more focus your problem statement and hopefully solve the problem much faster.

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