Several years ago I saw a YouTube video titled, “It’s not about the nail.” Watching this really hit home for me as I identified with the husband in the video. He immediately begins problem-solving as his wife explains the pressure and pain she is feeling in her head. During the video, the wife literally has a nail in her head. Despite the husband’s attempts to explain the root cause of the problems the wife is facing, she insists it’s not about the nail. Instead of solving the root of the problem, the wife opts for the immediate comfort of a listening ear. While it appeases her at the moment, this is not a long-term or sustainable solution.
In a comical way, this video illustrates a key principle of problem-solving, root cause analysis. Often times in the workplace today, companies encounter a problem and immediately begin efforts to reduce the negative outcomes of the problem. This is referred to as a “band-aid” approach. The countermeasures implemented during a band-aid approach may alleviate pain initially, but it won’t stop the bleeding when something like stitches is required. If you need stitches or surgery, a band-aid is only going to help temporarily and will probably make things worse long-term. Here are the 5 steps to proper problem solving:
Problem-Solving Step 1 – Plan
Identify your problem. Draft a statement that is specific, time-based, and has the standard and deviation from the standard. A statement like “profits are down” is not descriptive nor does it help solve the problem. Instead, draft a statement such as, “From July 3rd to July 18th profits dropped to $18,326 from the standard of $26,000 for that given time period.” The more specific you are, the easier it will be to focus on the root cause and find a sustainable solution.
Next, work with a team to brainstorm possible causes of the problem why those conditions exist. Ask the question “why” over and over until it doesn’t make sense to ask anymore. Here is an example:
Problem Statement: During July of 2017, pitting in the concrete at the Washington Monument has increased 10%. The standard is that no pitting should occur.
- Acid rain
- Increase foot traffic
- Terrorist attacks
- Pressure washing of concrete
- Trump conspiracy
While it may seem like a couple of these are more likely causes, asking “why” helps get to the root cause. Pick one the possible cause and keep asking “why” until it doesn’t make sense to ask it anymore:
- Why is the concrete being pressure washed? Because there are bird droppings on the concrete.
- Why are there bird droppings on the concrete? Because the birds come to eat insects in the area.
- Why are there insects in the area? Because they are attracted to the lights that illuminate the monument.
- Why do lights illuminate the monument? Because we want people to see it.
At this point, we can stop asking why. We now have a better understanding of the problem. The next step in the problem-solving process is to do.
Problem Solving Step 2 – Do, Check, Adjust
Now you have a hypothesis or can at least formulate one. While the pressure washing is the cause of the pitting, we can’t just eliminate it without causing the undesired result of having bird droppings all over a public place. Instead, our hypothesis is based on the root cause of the lights and the bugs.
With this in mind, jump into experimentation mode. Look for countermeasures that can address the root causes you hypotheses to be the source of the problem. For the example above, you may test different lightening and monitor effects on bug populations or you may look at extermination efforts to reduce bugs, reduce birds, and reduce the need for excessive pressure washing. The key here is to test a hypothesis, measure the results, then adjusting to the new data. For example, if you switch out the lights and bugs, birds, and dropping increase then you will know that the solution did not work. Adjust your hypothesis, test a new solution, and measure your results again. You may run through this cycle once, or you may end up testing dozens of hypotheses. This is basic, scientific problem-solving.
Problem-Solving Step 3 – Sustain
Once you have a solution that delivers the results you want, it’s time to implement standard procedures to ensure the solution and results can be sustained long-term. If switching the lights to a different bulb did the trick, you will need to document the specifications for the bulb so that when they are changed in the future, the problem doesn’t return. Whether new standard operating procedures need to be documented, or new tools and equipment need to be implemented, your job in proper problem solving is to ensure your results are sustainable.