4 Tips for solving wickedly complex problems before they become a crisis

Most crisis in a business’s operations don’t start with a point in time event but rather as a series of factors building over time creating an environment where a triggering event causes crisis-level impact. Many of these situations involve a web of interdependencies and moving parts making problem solving efforts difficult. While it is not always possible to avoid the unplanned events, there are things that your company can do to create an environment where impact is mitigated or contained, preventing the event from turning into a full-blown crisis.

Decades of problem solving experience have shown that most major incident and crisis situations stem from not one but a combination of environmental and problem factor that under the right conditions amplify the impact of each other. Addressing individual factors may delay the crisis but true mitigation and avoidance require looking at the big picture and addressing the whole problem situation. Here are 4 tips for understanding and solving the wickedly complex problems that could turn into crisis for your company.

1. Look for warning signs – Where there is smoke, there is likely to be fire. You can’t solve a problem that you don’t know about. Identifying problem situations starts with having the right monitoring, telemetry and observational capabilities in place to understand what is going on within your operations. Most manufacturing equipment, machinery and IT systems include telemetry capabilities to provide operators insight into the component’s performance and any errors/exceptions that may be occurring. Often, component monitoring alone is not enough. Companies need to look at their end-to-end processes and the big picture environment of their operations and implement monitoring capabilities focused on the whole-system and interactions among components. Some of these capabilities may be in the form of automation (think smoke alarm) but they can also be the observational capabilities of employees (knowing what smoke smells like).

2. Have staff knowledgeable in problem solving – Having the most sophisticated monitoring and telemetry available isn’t going to prevent problems if no-one is paying attention and acting on the signals being produced. Operations staff (both management and those on the shop floor) should understand the role they play in the problem-solving process – from monitoring and diagnosis to solutioning, decision making and implementing preventative measures. Those employees closest to your operations, either as operators or managers with bigger picture visibility should know what to look for, when to be concerned and what actions they need to take.

3. Keep on top of preventative maintenance – Most manufacturing and operations processes involve physical equipment, machinery and technology components that are prone to wear and failures that can impact the rest of the operations. Keeping on top of small issues, performing preventative maintenance and keeping equipment in working order can help avoid major failures. The first signs of equipment issues and the need for maintenance are often observable as slight variation is production output. Production quality control monitoring and audits are a key observational tool in the manufacturing problem solving process. Equipment operators are another excellent source for identifying equipment issues. The sensitive human senses (smell, hearing and touch) combined with experience and intuition can enable operators to identify machinery and equipment maintenance issues before automated sensors register a problem.

4. Apply risk management techniques – Effective problem solving and crisis avoidance is all about risk management. Your company will never be able to address every factor that could potentially contribute to a crisis so you must focus on priorities. Structured risk management looks at the likelihood of a situation occurring and the impact if it does occur – balanced against the cost of acting to mitigate/avoid the situation. Your organization has limited time and resources at their disposal, so having an objective basis for prioritizing problem-solving opportunities can increase your likelihood of avoiding a crisis.

Kepner-Tregoe has been the industry leader in problem-solving and crisis management for over 60 years – helping companies solve some wickedly complex problems an implement the processes needed to achieve Operational Excellence. The experts at KT understand the impacts a crisis can have on your business and the importance of avoiding them.

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