The 6 Fundamentals of Effective Problem-Solving
By Diane Elko

Why Root Cause Analysis is Important to Your Quality Management System

The essence of continual improvement is the ability to solve problems effectively. A problem (or potential problem) comes up, its root cause is identified, and action is taken to eliminate the root cause. If the organization progressively seeks out and eliminates problems in this way, then continual improvement results. It’s that simple.

Theorizing about problem solving as a cornerstone of continual improvement may be easy, but making it happen in a systematic and effective manner is much more difficult. Problem-solving skills rarely come naturally; they must be refined and practiced daily. But these skills can be developed by most organizations.

After years of problem-solving experience in a wide range of organizations, I’ve learned to recognize six consistent fundamentals that are almost always present when problems are solved in lasting and effective ways. If these six fundamentals are incorporated into your problem-solving strategy, continual improvement will inevitably result. Each of them is detailed below.

Use a structured problem-solving method
Many organizations still use ad hoc methods for addressing problems. In other words, they latch on to the most obvious explanation for a problem and pray that they’ve addressed its root cause. An effective problem-solving method is simply a step-by-step road map for developing solutions. The numerous reasons for using a formal method are very convincing. Here are just a few:

Prevents problem solvers from jumping to conclusions. It’s always tempting to propose solutions before a problem is properly defined and its root cause identified. A structured problem-solving method prevents the process from short-circuiting and ensures the critical, preliminary step of truly understanding the problem and its variables.
Ensures root cause analysis. An inability-or unwillingness-to identify the root cause is probably the single biggest obstacle to problem solving. However, when one of the explicit steps of a structured problem-solving method is identifying the root cause, it’s much harder to ignore.
Demystifies the problem-solving process. When each step of the problem-solving method is understood and agreed upon by all participants, the process gives everyone an opportunity to contribute and drives a team-oriented style of problem solving.
Provides a reason to use analytical tools. The sheer number of analytical tools available to problem solvers is mind-boggling, and it’s not always clear when the use of a certain one is appropriate. A structured problem-solving method offers guidance on when and how to use the proper tools.  [Reference the Joiner Team Handbook.]
Although the timeless quandaries of society might elude a structured problem-solving method, the majority of predicaments facing business organizations won’t. Select a problem-solving method and commit to using it at all levels of your organization. Then train everyone in the method and make it an institution. A tool of this sort gets stronger with regular use, so exploit every opportunity for applying it.

Each of the following fundamentals could be considered components of the problem-solving method we just explored, but they’re still important enough to look at individually.

Assign ownership of the problem 
Even if your organization uses a team approach to problem solving, every problem should be assigned to a specific individual. Confirm that this person accepts the ownership. The owner is simply the project manager for solving the problem. Make sure he or she understands that being selected as “problem owner” in no way indicates accusation or blame. In fact, it’s a vote of confidence in the person’s ability as a leader and manager.

In a perfect world, problems assigned to committees will always get solved. In our world, this might even happen occasionally. However, individuals who are accountable for projects lead the vast majority of successful problem-solving projects. Ownership can make remarkable things happen; don’t neglect it.

Involve people familiar with the problem
Those most familiar with the variables surrounding a problem should be involved in the problem-solving process. Often, these aren’t managers and supervisors but people taking orders, writing software, operating machines, driving forklifts and performing repairs. An organization’s culture must allow all personnel to contribute actively to the process, regardless of their level within the organization.

One of the project manager’s most important tasks will be to select the right people for the problem-solving team. Participants should be told why they’ve been included (e.g., because of their technical expertise, familiarity with processes in question or experience in the department). It’s important that individuals are motivated and enthusiastic about being involved.

Apply project management techniques
Project management is a very basic concept. It simply means assigning responsibilities, timeframes, milestones and reviews-and then tracking them to completion. Following through on a complex initiative without project management becomes strictly a matter of luck; something that wise people won’t count on in a pinch.

A well-designed corrective and preventive action system embodies the basics of project management. If your system is user-friendly and streamlined, then it’s perfectly suited as a project-management tool for problem solving. If it’s not, then it should be redesigned-and fast. Complexity isn’t a positive attribute for corrective and preventive action systems. Benchmark systems from other organizations and don’t be afraid to borrow best practices where you find them.

Aggressively pursue root cause
An explicit step of nearly all problem-solving models is identifying the root cause. But just because it’s explicit doesn’t mean it will happen. Identifying a problem’s true root cause must be encouraged, and it’s the project manager’s responsibility to see that this is done.

Identifying a root cause isn’t easy; it usually takes some serious investigation and intellectual tenacity. Keep in mind that a root cause is rarely the first thing that comes to mind. Once you think you’ve identified the root cause, ask “why” one more time and then 4 more times.  This is the 5 Why’s. You might be surprised to discover one more layer to the problematic onion.

Communicate, communicate, communicate
Make problem-solving success stories a frequent subject within your organization. If a customer complaint gets addressed effectively, tell the tale in the company newsletter or at your next meeting. If a group of employees succeeds in reducing the error rate, send everyone an e-mail trumpeting the achievement. Get the word out any time your organization succeeds in solving or preventing problems. The more often employees hear about successes, the more they’ll want to be involved. And the more they become involved, the more successful your company will become.

Dignified public recognition, or course, is a form of communication, and one that delivers an astronomical return on investment. The message underlying public recognition is: “The company appreciates your team’s fine efforts, and we sincerely hope others will follow your example.” Who wouldn’t want to follow their example and be recognized, too?