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What Happened? Different kinds of problems require different approaches

When something goes wrong, how do you respond? Problem-solving allows us to impose order where there has been disorder, it enables us to move from observing the effect of a problem to understanding its cause so that we can take appropriate actions to correct the problem or lessen its effects.

To move from observing the effect of a problem: “What Happened? or “What’s Going On?” to trying to understand why it happened, you need to understand the problem. Different kinds of problems require different courses of action to bring resolution.

Problems can be easily divided into four main categories to help you make the most effective response. The best methods and tools for resolving a problem are determined by the type of problem you want to resolve.

A Deviation Problem occurs when something is not performing as expected. There has been some deviation in performance, and we need to know the cause to resolve it. This can relate to the performance of a thing—like a machine—or a system or person.

There are a variety of popular methods and tools used to handle deviations. These may include the Five Whys, Fishbone, 8D, KT Problem Analysis, Shainin, and the Performance System.

An example of a deviation problem is when a piece of equipment overheats tripping an automatic shutdown. The problem is contained but must be resolved before normal operation can begin again.

An Efficiency Problem is when you need to save resources, time or money by improving the efficiency of a thing, a process or person.

Frequently used approaches to Efficiency Problems include Fault Tree Analysis, Lean and Incident Mapping.

Efficiency problems may be apparent when a system fails to run at anticipated capacity. Using the right problem-solving tools to remove bottlenecks, eliminate waste and reduce redundancy can reduce cost and improve profitability as production increases.

A Variation Problem occurs when the performance of a process (manufacturing, human, electronic) shifts unexpectedly outside acceptable limits. Two key approaches that help you refine variation problems to achieve resolution are Shainin and Six Sigma.

Six Sigma is particularly effective for addressing “common cause” variations in a system. These are the usual, historical, quantifiable variations that are inherent in a system. Addressing these issues moves a process towards being defect free, or specifically where 99.9996 (Six Sigma) percent of the process is expected to be defect free.

For example, Motorola, the company that first established the Six Sigma concept, has used Six Sigma to address pollution. Among the pollution reductions achieved using Six Sigma, 3M surpassed its goal to reduce volatile air emissions by 25%, achieving a 61% reduction. In 31 years, the company prevented 2.6 million pounds of pollutants from entering the environment and saved over $1 billion.

An Innovation Problem is when you need to find a solution to something that is more than just an incremental change; it is breakthrough development that meets the end users’ needs and more.

Resolution of an Innovation Problem can result in seismic shifts in technology, performance, or the way we do things. One of the most popular approaches to Innovation Problems is Design Thinking, by IDEO.

“The world needs creativity because problems aren’t getting simpler, says Matt Adams, IDEO Portfolio Director. “With creativity, we stop relying on what’s always been and open our eyes to what might be.”

As the future of work changes, with automation and robotics reducing the number of low-level tasks, the need for effective problem solvers who can quickly make sense of complex problems is increasingly important. While technical skills are often industry-specific, problem-solving is considered a “soft skill” that is valued at every level of an organization and in all functions and industry sectors.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman notes that “We now have very hard evidence that you have to have soft skills in order to succeed.” Problem-solving and critical thinking skills are enduring skills that take on increased value as other, more technical skills become automated or replaced.

About Kepner-Tregoe

Kepner-Tregoe has been the global leader in problem-solving consulting and training for over 60 years, working with companies across industries to solve some exciting (sometimes scary) problems and provide employees with the skills they need to confidently deliver results.  KT’s experience-based learning methods integrating tools such as simulations and coaching of in-tact teams have led to countless success stories for companies just like yours.

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