Manufacturing Breakthrough


Manufacturing Processes—Production and Business: Problem Solving, Part 1

By Bob Sproull

Today’s post is the first installment in a nine-part series on problem solving for manufacturers, for both production and business processes.  Over the next several posts, we’ll discuss problems in general and then present the recommended tools to solve them.

Today’s scenario: problems in internal manufacturing processes

Problems, problems, problems—everyone seems to have them.  Every process or system will eventually develop a problem.  The speed and efficacy with which a problem is solved depends largely on the skills of the people assigned to fix it. The reliability of their problem solving strategies correlates to how well they systematically investigate and analyze a problem for its root cause. 

Here is the dilemma for many organizations: their personnel are typically untrained in applying the appropriate problem-solving skills for a particular problem.  Often, they treat the symptoms rather than exposing and addressing the problem’s underlying cause. The result is that the problem never goes away; it simply becomes latent.

This misdirection is especially evident in typical manufacturing maintenance troubleshooting efforts, which results in extended periods of equipment downtime. This certainly isn’t for lack of intelligence or effort. Problems persist because many companies fail to provide adequate troubleshooting training for their personnel. 

Problem solving is a skill that can be learned. In 2001 my first book was published, entitled Process Problem Solving—A Guide for Maintenance and Operations Teams. Much of what I will cover in this series will be taken directly from this book.

Understanding problems: problems vs. deviation in manufacturing production

One reason people have difficulty solving a problem is that they truly don’t understand its nature. That may be because someone without direct ownership of or involvement with the problem is charged with finding a solution. Understanding why an issue is considered a problem is one of the first steps in solving it. This understanding helps create an appropriate sense of urgency for both the organization and the problem-solvers assigned to it. So just what is a problem?

Webster defines a problem in simple terms as “a matter proposed for solution: a puzzle.”  Although this definition describes what a problem is from a literal perspective, it doesn’t provide enough insight to understand what a problem is in the real world.  Kepner and Tregoe define problems as deviations from expected performance. In The New Rational Manager[1], they present a simple model to illustrate the structure of a problem as shown in the figure below.

The authors explain that “a performance standard is achieved when all conditions required for acceptable performance are operating as they should.”  This is true for everything in the work environment including people, systems, equipment and departments. Their model tells us that a stable level of performance should be occurring before a change takes place and a new level of performance is observed. The difference between the old and new performance levels is a deviation. So is this deviation referred to as a problem?   

In my experience, a problem is not merely a deviation from the expected level of performance.  In order for a deviation to be classified as a problem, I believe it must satisfy one or more of the following three requirements:

  1. The deviation must be perceived as a detriment to the organization. It must diminish production, quality, safety, or another factor. The result could be customer dissatisfaction, a delivery shortfall, loss in revenue, throughput issue, injury or any other detrimental outcome.
  2. The cause of the deviation is unknown. The root cause is not immediately established using the “normal” problem-solving techniques, which causes the change in performance to linger. If the cause isn’t known, the solution cannot be known either.
  3. The root cause and the solution are both known, but the solution can’t be implemented because doing so would either cost too much or take too long. As pressure mounts to get the problem fixed, the symptoms get treated or another “quick fix” is found. In turn, this creates a prolonged episode of the problem.

If the root cause and the solution are known, and implementing the solution doesn’t take too long and/or cost too much, then the deviation never develops into a problem. Many deviations never become problems, but when the critical factors of cost, time, and lost revenues begin to mount, that is when deviations become problems.

What if an organization considers a deviation to be beneficial? For instance, a change may occur that results in improved safety, quality, production, or revenue.  Is it still considered a problem? 

Yes. When a positive deviation returns to its previously acceptable level of performance (and it will if we don’t address and identify the root cause), the organization will perceive the change as problematic. Therefore, it is imperative that ALL deviations get investigated for root cause with the same scrutiny. In other words, all changes in performance (i.e. deviations) have the potential to become problems. The figure above describes both negative and positive deviations.

In closing, we have arrived at two problem solving truths:

  • Truth 1: A problem is the direct result of a change that occurred prior to a new performance level.
  • Truth 2: A deviation in performance becomes a problem when one of these conditions applies: 1) it adversely affects the organization, 2) the root cause is unknown, or 3) it costs too much or takes too much time to fix.

Coming in the next post

In my next post, we will continue our series by discussing problem-solving skills.  As always, if you have any questions or comments about any of my posts, please leave a message and I will respond ASAP.

Until next time,

Bob Sproull


[1] Kepner and Tregoe, The New Rational Manager (Kepner-Tregoe, Incorporated, 1981)

Bob Sproull

About the author

Bob Sproull has helped businesses across the manufacturing spectrum improve their operations for more than 40 years.

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