A Step-by-Step Process for Defining, Analyzing and Examining Opportunities and Problem Solutions for Complex Circumstances

Ed Hill

Carl Gerhiser

Synchronous Solutions

Quality Cotrol, Quality AssuranceAddressing a quality issue, or any other complex problem, can be a scientific endeavor. To be fully effective, a quality improvement initiative must be much more than just a reaction to the latest failure.  It must be a comprehensive and organized improvement initiative.  

This is a follow-up to the May 2018 Slippery Rock article Quality at the Source.  

According to W. Edwards Deming in Out of the Crisis, the most important function of management and supervision is to “constantly and forever improve the system that creates and delivers goods and services.” This is a never-ending process and inarguably hard work.  It requires the commitment of the extremely valuable resources of time, talent, energy and money. The more successful you are at utilizing these resources to solve the important challenges of your organization, the more competitive you will remain and the better able to rebound from setbacks. I recommend that you consider using this process for the most persistent problems and complex decisions.  

Depending on the size, importance and complexity of the decision to be made, the steps may take weeks to complete and there may be discussion at each step. Someone has to take responsibility for getting started and managing the project through the steps. This starts from the top.  

The Pareto principal is an excellent analysis tool to separate the vital few from the trivial many. In other words, work on the chronic issues that happen repeatedly, rather than reacting to an occasional issue. It helps to focus on the most important problems.  Additionally, take the opportunity to involve all levels of the organization whenever possible. 

It is a step-by-step process:  

1. Define the problem or opportunity. This is an important step, not to be taken lightly. 

“A problem properly defined is half solved.”
 Charles Kettering, Head of Research for GM


“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend fifty-nine minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”
–Albert Einstein.

We frequently begin by solving the wrong problem or by not looking deeply enough into the cause. Take time and carefully describe the problem or opportunity. Examine and list the possible causes for the problem or for the market opportunity. Problems and opportunities rarely have single-step causes. There are usually many steps in a chain and sometimes multiple causes for them. Rarely are we able to even determine a single “root cause,” although you should start with an effort to identify the primary core cause of each issue. Deciding on the level of detail here is a matter of judgment. Select where to attack the problem or evaluate the opportunity. As stated above, there are usually many steps in the chain to the cause of a problem, and often many contributing circumstances. Selecting the most efficient solution is important to being a little better than your competitor (from Apollo, Root Cause Analysis).  

2. Identify and evaluate courses of action. There can be many courses of action that are available to address a problem or exploit an opportunity. At this point, is useful to identify courses of action and potentially choose a set to move forward with, based on cursory analysis. The solutions can attack the problem at different stages and in different directions. One oft-quoted example is the complex and expensive research and development project that NASA created to develop a pen that would write in a weightless environment, whereas the Russians used a pencil to solve the problem. 

A word of caution here:  be careful to avoid the curse of unintended consequences. Sometimes, the solution to a problem can cause an even greater problem. Think it through with your key staff so that you avoid this situation.

3. Estimate a cost and benefit for each proposed solution in the set that you have chosen to move forward with. This will likely involve activities from getting quotes, Internet research and some guesswork. You will never have perfect information. Even with estimates just from experience, it forces us to develop some detail to our decision-making process.  

4. Make the selection. Even if the data gathered above represents some quick estimates, we are forced to evaluate the data and our confidence in those estimates. Involving other stakeholders at this point at least gives everyone a chance to be heard, and therefore helps with gathering support for the decision. When people see how we arrived at the decision, their support is more likely. 

5. Evaluate at some point in the future. Many of our decisions will be wrong, or they will need significant adjustment. Evaluating the data and assumptions that were a part of the decision will allow us to be more discriminating in the future. We all have weak spots in our ability to make estimates and see the future. Examining where our data, estimates and assumptions were incorrect allows us to be more concerned about those areas in the future.  

While this process may seem complex and cumbersome at first, as we gain more facility, we can evaluate and hopefully improve decision-making by identifying the weak areas. Additionally, as we make the activity more visible and involve more of the stakeholders, we also begin developing their abilities. Hopefully, this leads to the benefit of some of the steps being handed off to others, and distributing the responsibilities of management and making better business decisions.  

Making dramatic improvement to your business processes requires a systemic approach to the initiative. This is hard work and must be carefully planned and executed. Strong leadership and disciplined activities will assure success.  

For more information, contact Carl Gerhiser or Ed Hill at Synchronous Solutions, www.SynchronousSolutions.com , 

CarlGerhiser@SynchronousSolutions.com , EdHill@SynchronousSolutions.com or call 704-560-1536.