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Use a systematic approach to problem-solving

Attack the problem, not the people. People generally do the best job they can within the process with which they were trained. It is up to management to improve the process, but they do not always know how to start.

A systematic approach to problem solving is useful.

The Japanese developed such a problem-solving process, which they called The Quality Control Story or QC Story. It has been adapted in this country, sometimes under the name of The Quality Journal or The Seven-Step Process.

Details of this process can be found in chapter 10 of the book, Statistical Methods for Quality Improvement by Hiroshi Kume. This discipline brings consistency to problem solving in every department of the organization and displays progress so that anyone can look at it and offer additional suggestions for improvement.

The Quality Journal adds a before and after simple flow chart of the steps in the process relevant to the problem to show improvement (and hopefully simplification) or not.

When I asked a Japanese friend why they did not do this, he responded, "We assume you know what is going on in the process before you attempt to make any changes to it." I don't think we can always make that assumption in this country.

The seven steps are described as:

Clearly define the problem. In 1.a, actually state the problem and how it impacts the total system. It is not unusual to have to rewrite the problem statement more than once as data will reveal the real problem is different from the original premise.

In step 1.b, data is collected and displayed in chart form to prove that this is indeed a problem.

Observe the problem. Examine the problem from several points of view, typically, different times, different places, different types, and different symptoms. Involve the people actually doing the work in collecting the data and displaying it in chart forms.

This step is particularly useful in learning about the problem.

Determine the main causes of the problem. This step is divided into two parts; first brainstorm all the possible causes of the problem and theorize which are the main causes.

We have now set our hypothesis on the main cause to correct. But wait, there is a step 3.b. That is to collect data to prove our hypothesis; that we have correctly identified the main cause of our problem. If not, then we go back to our brainstorming chart, usually a cause and effect chart to develop a new theory of the main cause of the problem.

The remaining four steps of the systematic approach to problem solving will be presented in the next column.

Louis Schultz, managing director of Process Management LLC, has assisted organizations worldwide with performance improvement. E-mail him with questions or comments at