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Fix the Problem, Not the Blame

by Lou Schultz, SCORE counselor

Original publish date April 21, 2009 (#7,8)


Attack the problem, not the people! People generally do the best job they can within the process with which they were trained. It is up to management to improve the process, but they do not always know how to start. A systematic approach to problem solving is useful.

The Japanese developed such a problem-solving process, which they called The Quality Control Story or QC Story. It has been adapted in this country, sometimes under the name of The Quality Journal or The Seven-Step Process. Details of this process can be found in Chapter 10 of the book, Statistical Methods for Quality Improvement by Hiroshi Kume. This discipline brings consistency to problem solving in every department of the organization and displays progress so that anyone can look at it and offer additional suggestions for improvement.

The Quality Journal adds a before and after simple flow chart of the steps in the process relevant to the problem to show improvement (and hopefully simplification) or not. When I asked a Japanese friend why they did not do this, he responded, "We assume you know what is going on in the process before you attempt to make any changes to it." I don't think we can always make that assumption in this country.

The seven steps are described as:

  1. Clearly define the problem. In 1.a, actually state the problem and how it impacts the total system. I recommend using a pencil for this because often when data is collected, the problem is different from what was thought starting the problem-solving effort. It is not unusual to have to rewrite the problem statement more than once. In step 1.b, data is collected and displayed in chart form to prove that this is indeed a problem.
  2. Observe the problem. Examine the problem from several points of view; typically, different times, different places, different types, and different symptoms. Involve the people actually doing the work in collecting the data and displaying it in chart forms. This step is particularly useful in learning about the problem.
  3. Determine the main causes of the problem. This step is divided into two parts; first brainstorm all the possible causes of the problem and theorize which are the main causes. We have now set our hypothesis on the main cause to correct, but wait, there is a step 3.b. That is to collect data to prove our hypothesis; that we have correctly identified the main cause of our problem. If not, then we go back to our brainstorming chart, usually a cause and effect chart to develop a new theory of the main cause of the problem.
  4. Take action that will eliminate the main causes. Once the cause has been identified and proven, this step is relatively easy. Use data to evaluate several possible solutions to the problem. Take care to remove causes and not just symptoms of the problem. Care should also be taken so that the solution does not have detrimental side effects on this process or any other parts of the organization.
  5. Study the results. Data should be collected to check the effectiveness of the action taken. Compare the situations before and after. If the results of the action are not what was desired, first determine if the action was implemented a planned. If the solution was implemented as planned, but the results are undesirable, it is necessary to test a different solution.
  6. Standardize on the new method. After the desired results are achieved, develop a new standard and communicate it to everyone involved in the process. Provide training and devise a check system to observe compliance with the new standards.
  7. Document the conclusion. Review the problem-solving procedure and identify what was learned. Note what worked well in the improvement process and what did not so others can learn for the future.

This may sound complex at first but after you have gone through it a few times, it is fairly simple and valuable. A dramatic example of application of this process was revealed to me on a trip to Japan twenty years ago.

The world headquarters of Canon, Inc., a large manufacturer of cameras, copiers, and printers, is a beautiful building and grounds with a large and impressive lobby. But, I felt the display of data in chart forms in various places about the lobby were distracting. I studied them and found they were QC Stories about problems they were experiencing and progress they were making in solving those problems. When my host met me, I asked him why they were airing their dirty linen in front of the public like that and he said, "Oh, we get many good ideas from our visitors." Thinking about it, most of their visitors are probably customers or suppliers who have a vested interest and knowledge to contribute to solve those problems. They knew all organizations have problems and there is no stigma with that as long as progress is made to solve the problems. They were not embarrassed to get help from wherever they might obtain it.

So we have problems, it is important we make progress in solving them. A systematic approach like this seven step process is indeed helpful.

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