Problem-solving is a core skill in life and business. Notice I called it a skill. That means anyone can develop it! No one is born a great problem solver. You become a great problem solver by learning from others, making mistakes, and trying different things. You can also improve your skill by utilizing the right tools.
Problem-solving starts with root cause analysis. What is root cause analysis? It’s a formal, problem-solving approach that identifies the root cause of an issue. By moving from surface-level concerns to deeper problems, you can find the root issue and face it head-on. If you don’t know what the root issue is, your attempts to fix the surface concerns may be in vain. So instead of being distracted by symptoms, you can use tools to identify the core disease. When you do this, many symptoms are solved since they are often the result of one underlying issue. Some of the tools I like to use include Fishbone diagrams, the 5 Whys, Pareto charts, and formal Brainstorming. Let’s get to know two of these tools.
Are you familiar with a Pareto chart? I love Pareto charts! They’re based on the Pareto Principle which you may know as the 80/20 rule. This is used in Lean and Six Sigma to prioritize problem-solving efforts. This theory, with an alarming amount of statistical and historical evidence to support it, is that 80% of your problems can be solved by tackling 20% of the issues.
The basic premise of this tool is to gather data to find trends in your defects, complaints, or other factors you can count and categorize. For example, you could collect customer feedback in various areas like visual branding, communication, and delivery of products. You would then analyze the feedback, listing keywords or phrases under the appropriate category. As certain words are repeated you would move them up in priority in the list. This will help you see trends in what needs to be fixed in each category. It’s even more effective when you find trends across categories, highlighting areas of growth for your entire company or department. After you identify the top problems you’ll want to prioritize them. How you prioritize the list will depend on what kind of problem you are solving. Customer service problems might be prioritized based on the frequency of a given complaint. While a profits problem would be prioritized based on how much each problem costs the company. Pareto charts can also help you identify the root cause of a positive outcome like why some teams work well together or what qualities make up a successful product launch.
A Fishbone Diagram is a relatively simple but powerful tool for conducting a root cause analysis. A Fishbone Diagram is put together, ideally, in a facilitated session – facilitated chaos is what I like to call them! In this focused brainstorming session, your team is not brainstorming solutions, but potential causes.
You start by identifying your problem. This is often a visible problem or a symptom. That’s the head of the fish. Then you draw a horizontal line out to the left, like the spine of a fish. Next, you draw 4-6 offshoots from the spine. Those are categories or contributing factors. Some commonly used categories for these offshoots are people, machine, method, measurement, material, and environment. Or you can create custom categories unique to your industry. Then, along each rib line or category, you brainstorm potential causes. Once you have those, prioritize what causes to address first. A great way to do that is through a Pareto chart. These diagrams can be relatively high-level and simple or wildly complex. This depends on the depth of the root causes and the skill of the facilitator. If done well, this type of root cause analysis can greatly benefit your team and company.
Problems are inevitable. People, systems, projects, they’ve all got them. We can’t avoid all problems. But we can avoid repetitive problems by utilizing quality problem-solving tools and skills. If you fix a problem in the moment but fail to analyze the root cause, you’re likely to repeat it in the future. Give one of these tools a try and see how it helps! When you do, come tell me about it in the Starfleet Leadership Academy Facebook group. I’d love to hear how it went!
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