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What do COVID-19 recovery, robots, integrated automation systems, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), RCM, re-shoring of jobs, and hiring talent have in common? Yes, they’re here, now, and they challenge many traditional ways of managing a business. But there’s more. The rapid implementation of these performance-improvement opportunities and solutions has also accelerated the demand for systematic problem solving.

As I’ve explained in the past, problem solving is a formidable competitive challenge thrust upon us by economic recovery, global competition, shortened product cycles, and the explosive adoption rate of integrated and interdependent technologies. Meeting that challenge requires problem-solving workplaces. But how do we develop them?

A “problem,” per the online source businessdictionary.com, is “a perceived gap between the existing state and a desired state, or a deviation from a norm, standard, or status quo.” Thus, for a problem to be a “problem,” there must be a standard from which we can determine if one does, in fact, exist, i.e., something that defines the normal condition. This is where standard work (a defined way for performing a task) comes in. The same goes for reliability standards (equipment doing what it’s supposed to do), quality standards (defect-free products), and safety standards (injury-free workplaces).  problems are deviations from expectations, identifying and solving them without standards can fuel guessing games of chasing false problems.

Before considering problem-solving tools, though, let’s consider the human side of the issue: Does a person have a problem-solving aptitude and, if so, what type? The following list describes some common approaches.

♦  “Ostrich.”
Some individuals view problems as negatives, rather than opportunities for improvement. They tend to avoid considering solutions: “We can live with this problem, if we just . . .”

♦  “Denial.” Some routinely fail to recognize or admit a problem exists: “That’s not a problem. It happens all the time. . .”

♦  “Always did it that way.” For some people, problem solving is more intuitive than systematic and structured. Past practices tend to frame their solutions: “Let’s try what we did the last time something like this happened. . . ”

 “Remove and replace.” Some specialize in trial-and-error techniques, where some solutions work, others don’t: “I’ve replaced most of the parts in the unit and it finally started working. . . ”

♦  “Yes, but.” Some individuals will miss the problem entirely, yet already be working on a solution: “I hear what you’re saying, but here’s what we need to do. . . ”

♦  “Work around.: Some look for ways to work around the problem rather than for the cause: “I know it quit working, so we just put in a by-pass circuit to keep it running. . .”

♦  “What do we know.” The most successful problem solvers are people who time to better understand a problem before beginning a systematic process of identifying solution options to pursue: “What happened? Was anything changed here before the problem occurred? Who was there at the time?”

Keep in mind that analyzing problems to determine their causes is a scientific discipline, of which there are a variety of proven processes. One key point here is “discipline.”

Root-cause analysis (RCA) not only requires a proven step-by-step process, it also depends on the human-performance discipline to adhere to that type of process—a standardized problem-solving approach embraced by the organization.

Another phase of problem solving is arriving at and establishing solutions that prevent a problem or its effects from recurring (or continuing). Arriving at a solution can also be an iterative process of trying potential solutions and analyzing the outcomes until a sustainable and affordable solution is determined.

Whenever I think about problem solving, I’m reminded of my conversation with auto-racing’s Ray Evernham almost 25 years ago. At the time, Evernham was still the crew chief for Jeff Gordon, who, late in the 1992 Winston Cup season, had begun driving for NASCAR’s Hendrick Motorsports team.

As a consultant to the organization, I was focusing on Hendrick’s use of root-cause failure analysis in its problem-solving process (a very robust and rapid one). How delighted I was when Evernham explained that the team also performed root-cause “success” analyses, i.e., analyzing what went unexpectedly right, whether it was a win, an ultra-fast pit stop, or a zero-failure race.

A root-cause success analysis can turn the tables, from eliminating problems to repeating successes. Seeking answers to “what can we do consistently better,” which is a critical success factor in motorsports, can be just as valuable in plant and facility operations.

Troubleshooting is not necessarily solving problems. In the plant and facility maintenance operations, troubleshooting varies widely. At times the troubleshooting process involves removing and replacing parts one at a time until the defective one is located. (Not too scientific, but a common practice.)

Scientific troubleshooting requires a troubleshooter to truly understand the inner working of a device that is harboring the fault. That includes understanding components, systems, circuits, hardware, software, and firmware.

Again, the more the technician understands the device the more efficient and effective the troubleshooting process becomes. But troubleshooting is only half the battle. Determining, then implementing, the correct solution and proving its success, is the end goal.

The ability to troubleshoot, perform root-cause analyses, and solve problems (or improve performance) requires disciplined human performance, i.e., adherence to proven processes.

Furthermore, those engaged in the problem-solving process must have the aptitude and ability to think through the variables that process and the associated equipment conditions. They must be able to understand what a pre-fault (or normal) conditions are and must be able to recognize fault conditions.

I’ve often written and spoken about the way many in my generation grew up taking things apart. Fixing things. Building things. We had access to tools and were constantly seeking out opportunities to use them.

Shop classes and working on cars and other things around the house or farm helped build our confidence and respect for how “stuff” worked. Sometimes we got hurt (not seriously), and sometimes we damaged things. But that’s how we learned many of our skills.

Over time, many of us developed mechanical aptitudes and a variety of abilities to put them to work. A solid mechanical aptitude and understanding of basic cause-and-effect relationships are central to problem solving.

Unfortunately, we’ve been witnessing the impact of exposing several generations to few, if any, shop classes. Individuals entering the workplace without problem-solving aptitudes and abilities are severely disadvantaged, as are our industries. Growing effective problem solvers has been increasingly difficult over the past few years.


Building a problem-solving mindset in an organization requires people with the right skills and plenty of practice. It also calls for a consistent and systematic approach to solving problems. Moreover, a problem-solving mindset must be set from top management as a way of doing business.TRR

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Bob Williamson is a long-time contributor to the people-side of the world-class-maintenance and manufacturing body of knowledge across dozens of industry types. His background in maintenance, machine and tool design, and teaching has positioned his work with over 500 companies and plants, facilities, and equipment-oriented organizations. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or bwilliamson@theramreview.com.

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM,  operator care, asset management, plant operations, training and qualification, vocational education, root-cause analysis, troubleshooting