Manufacturing Breakthrough


Manufacturing: Problem Solving in Production, Part 3

By Bob Sproull

Review of Problem Solving in Manufacturing Processes, Part 2

In my last post we began our discussion about the psychology of teaching problem-solving skills. We talked about why many people avoid opportunities to solve problems and why they would be less apprehensive if they knew how to apply a structured approach.  Finally, we detailed the benefits of our proposed approach, known ironically as L.U.C.K. (Laboring Under Correct Knowledge):

  1. Reduce the probability of overlooking key factors.
  2. Necessitate understanding the basic process with the problem.
  3. Discourage reliance on hunches, intuition, pre-conceptions of the problem.
  4. Increase the probability that the root cause(s) of the problem will be found.
  5. Result in demonstrably workable solutions.

In this post, we will begin a discussion on what I refer to as the “Logical Pathway of Problem Solving,” taken directly from my first book, [1] Process Problem Solving – A Guide for Maintenance and Operation’s Teams. We will list the necessary steps in any problem solving format, and begin to explore them in detail.

The Logical Pathway of Problem Solving

Now that we can see the advantages of using a logical and systematic problem-solving approach, let’s look at a typical problem-solving format. Many problem-solving formats are in use, and nearly all of them use the basic elements of a logical pathway. I have personally used these elements in this sequence for more than 40 years:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Describe and define the problem.
  3. List the symptoms.
  4. List the known changes.
  5. Analyze the problem.
  6. Hypothesize possible causes.
  7. Test possible causes.
  8. Take action(s) on the cause(s).
  9. Test and implement the solution.
  10. Implement appropriate controls.
  11. Celebrate, recognize success, and document.

Now let’s take a look at what each individual element is intended to accomplish, along with some instructive examples.

Identify the problem

In an earlier post, we defined a problem as a deviation from an expected level of performance, with no known cause or solution, which has a negative impact on an organization. In order to identify and ultimately solve a problem, we must know exactly what the expected level of performance should be compared to the current actual performance. We must also understand the effect of the deviation on the organization and why it is considered negative. Many times in my career I have witnessed problem-solving teams fail to identify why performance deviations were considered problems by their respective organizations.

Define and describe the problem

Describing and defining the problem is the foundational step in the process. The problem description builds the platform for the problem-solving activities that follow, so it must be as complete and accurate as possible.

For example, suppose you are given the task of solving a problem involving a motor that stopped functioning. Because you had solved a similar problem in the past, you assume the root cause was a burned-out armature. By limiting yourself to actions that might be related to things like a defective overload or a short in the electrical system, you may miss other potential causes of the problem.  What if the real root cause was seized bearings that resulted in excessive heat build-up, which led to the motor shutting down?

When describing the problem, it helps to view it from two separate perspectives: the object and the object’s defect or fault. By asking a series of simple questions, you will develop a more complete definition of the problem as follows:

  1. What is the specific object with the problem and what feature has the fault?
  2. Where is the location on the object with the fault?
  3. When in time and in the process cycle of the object was the problem first observed? Determining the clock and process stage times is a key to understanding the problem.
  4. How many objects have the problem, and how many faults are observed on the objects?
  5. What is the trend and scope of the problem? Is the problem rate increasing, decreasing, or remaining constant? Is there a distinct pattern?

It is helpful to answer these questions by contrasting the object with the fault to another like it (or a similar object) without the problem. That is, ask not only where the problem is, but also where it is not. Where would you expect to see the problem, but you do not? These comparisons help you zero in on critical distinctions in your effort to solve the problem. When this step is complete, you will have a complete definition and description, which you will distill into a succinct problem statement. This will function as a problem-solving compass for all of the next steps you will take in reaching a solution.

List the symptoms

Solving problems is the culmination of many different activities. Among the most important is developing a list of symptoms of the problem being solved. If you’ve ever been a patient in an emergency room, you may have observed the medical problem-solving process. Doctors know that developing a list of symptoms is paramount to a precise diagnosis. They usually check temperature, blood pressure, pulse rate, eyes, ears, abdomen, and lungs. Checking these bodily functions for symptoms reliably and consistently leads them to the root causes of patient problems.

In one of my earlier posts, I related a story about when I was working at Michelin and a co-worker taught me the importance of using my sense to uncover potential down-the-road problems. Using your senses can also help you uncover symptoms of problems. If you are in a typical manufacturing setting, you might detect common symptoms through smell, touch, sound, or vision.  Here are some common examples of problems that you might uncover using your senses.

  • Smell: If you smell the odor of burning rubber, you might look for worn or loose V-belts, an electrical problem, or a problem with overheating bearings.
  • Touch: If you feel an abnormal vibration, you might look for worn bearings in a motor, loose bolts, or misalignment of shafts.
  • Hearing: If you hear a grinding or scraping noise, you might look for misaligned gears.
  • Vision: You can detect many things by looking at fluid levels, excessive gaps, and jerking motions.

As these examples demonstrate, your senses can be valuable and reliable tools in the problem-solving process.

Coming in the next post

In my next post, we will continue our progression through the logical pathway for solving problems. We will examine how changes impact problem solving and how we should best analyze what we know at a given point in the process.

As always, if you have any questions or comments about any of my posts, please leave a message and I will respond.

Until next time.


Bob Sproull


[1] Process Problem Solving – A Guide for Maintenance and Operation’s Teams, 2001, Productivity Press

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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