…but where is the problem solving?

An external auditor was being shown the wide use of improvement storyboards throughout the organization. He was very impressed by the daily experiments, the documentation of what was being learned, and the results being gained.

Then he said “…but they aren’t doing problem solving.”

Huh? It turns out that, to this person, “problem solving” means using very specific “problem solving tools” such as fishbone charts, Pareto diagrams, histograms, etc. Since he didn’t see those specific tools being used, “they aren’t doing problem solving.”

But they are solving lots of problems – and that was clear.

Another C.I. director had the same complaint: If they aren’t documenting things on an A3 in a specific format, then they aren’t solving problems, or at least aren’t solving them effectively.

People have been solving problems experimentally for thousands of years. There have just been other ways to structure and document the process. I don’t think anyone who has a clue about the process they used could say that Wilbur and Orville Wright were “not doing problem solving” yet there is not a fishbone or Pareto chart in sight. Nope, they just meticulously documented their experiments, their predictions their results, and were laser focused on the problem they were trying to solve.


Saying people “aren’t doing problem solving” while acknowledging that they are solving problems doesn’t make sense to me, but I have heard it a few times.

Instead of trying to force the creative process through a specific template, how about pulling out the template as a helpful tool when it might help get something unstuck. In other words, for the tool itself – Exactly what problem are you trying to solve?

7 Replies to “…but where is the problem solving?”

  1. using templates, tools and documentation means to use methods and using methods make more sure the problem solving. Experimentation is a method for understanding problem and to solve it, often I see probability plots used for problem solving and it is not a classic problem solving but it works very well in many cases

  2. Hello Mark

    Good story to illustrate your point. I agree that use of a tool does not equal problem solving.

    There are valid cases where people “solve problems” but aren’t doing problem solving. Let’s say I have a capacity problem. I buy another machine. Problem solved. But the root causes of the capacity shortage have not been addressed. The pain has been relieved but the underlying illness is still there.

    Or, I can luck upon a better combination of settings, model mix and run speeds to improve capacity. But without visualizing it in a familiar problem solving format or template it is hard to check if it was luck, my years of expertise and intuition or repeatable process. The tools force us to “show our work” so that the teacher can identify where we haven’t thought things through.

    When doing math problems, I could solve a problem and find the answer in my head. If I got it wrong, and I hadn’t shown my work, my teacher gave me a zero. If I had shown my work and the teacher could see where I made an error or misread the question, I would get partial credit, and more importantly, teaching to do better next time.

    Without the use of some degree of prescription, and expertise to guide problem solving (medical or CI) it is too easy for people make a problem go away.

    1. Jon –
      In this specific example, they *were* doing rigorous problem solving. They were simply using different methods to rigorously structure their thinking and document their process, and engage in conversations with others about their logic. That is, really, why I pushed so hard on it. I fully agree that “making the symptoms go away” does not equal “problem solving.”

      Where I have an issue is when the person making the judgement jumps to the conclusion that it “isn’t problem solving” because it doesn’t look like what they expect vs. becoming curious about the thinking and underlying process – much the same as the quick judgement you are referring to. LOL

  3. Hi Mark, thank you for your comments and so interesting article.
    Following-up to John’s comment, as it works with math for problem solving, the A3/pareto/fishbone/others are frames that open the practice collectively and the problem solving begin to be a collective learning tool. The teatcher/coach/mentor/co-workers are able, through those frames, to challenge the thinking wich is behind and collectivelly learn about the problem.
    The frames, in this case are also a communication tools.

    1. Jerome –
      I don’t disagree for a second that the various tools help frame good problem solving. Where I push back, though, is at those who insist that “problem solving” requires the use of specific formats, frames or tools. While the tools may well be very useful, they are not necessary for good problem solving to occur. I’m working on a follow-up post of a specific case I have experienced where the tool and structure actually got in the way for a while.

  4. Great post and interesting feedback from it. I’ve worked in a variety of environments and cultures which took different approaches to problem solving. Some were more rigid, requiring the use of specific tools as a part of the problem solving process. Other’s didn’t proscribe specific tools but did require problems to be solved and performance to improve.

    My experience may be unique but in the cases of organizations that proscribed specific tools, using the tool was emphasized more than actual improvement. The organizations that weren’t as proscriptive had a tighter focus on improvement, not the tools.

    It’s interesting to see that if a groups performance is improving, but not by using the “right” approach, it’s somehow not a valid performance improvement.

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