Clues For Problem Solving

Basic Business Cents

The hardest part of problem solving in business is often getting started; it helps to have an outline to follow. An additional benefit of a standard approach is consistency between problem solving teams so people can fit in with new teams.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming built upon a revolving cycle approach to problem-solving which he learned from a Bell Labs friend, Dr. Walter Shewhart. He took it to Japan in 1951 when he was asked to help them turn their economy around after World War II. It further evolved from applications there to what is now called the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle. It is usually depicted in revolving circles but perhaps it is clearer in outline form.

PLAN: Before any action is taken, a plan should be made to define the problem, determine who are the customers involved and obtain feedback on the nature of the problem, how it affects the customers and clarify their requirements.

  • Define: Clearly state and obtain consensus on the problem to be addressed
    • Establish the Focus: Narrow the focus to a manageable problem-don’t try to solve “world hunger”.
  • Measure: Find a way to objectively measure before and after results to determine if progress is being made.
    • Examine the Current Situation: Collect data when possible, talk to internal and external customers, and get input from the people actually doing the work in the area.
  • Analyze: Study the processes involved in the problem area and brainstorm possible causes of the problem; it is okay to think outside of the box.
    • Analyze the Causes: Select the most likely cause (s) of the problem and develop a solution.

DO: Try the solution on a pilot basis to see if it does indeed eliminate the identified main cause

  • Improve: Measure the effect of the trial of the solution.
    • Act on the Causes: Apply the solution and document the effect. If necessary try more than one approach.

CHECK: Study the results of the trial approach to the solution.

  • Improve: As you learn more about the problem and processes involved, document improvements in the solution approach for future action.
    • Study the Results: If the problem is solved or the process improved measurably, take it to the Act action. If not, return to the brainstorming of the causes and develop a different solution. If necessary, go back to Plan and roll the cycle again.

ACT: If the measurements show the solution does not work, return to identification of causes and develop a better solution.

  • Control: Obtain consistency in the organization in applying knowledge learned to improve the performance.
    • Standardize the Changes: If the measurements do confirm the solution of the problem, then document the changes in the Organization Operating Principles or similar document. Roll it out to other departments so the process is performed consistently throughout the organization.
    • Draw Conclusions: Study what was learned from the problem-solving process that can be applied elsewhere.

The Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle is a simple approach to problem solving. It becomes a way of thinking to aid in constant improvement of improving the performance of the organization. No process is perfect but the cycle can be rolled around again and again to pursue that perfection.