Problem Solving – Solve the Right Problem

This article is extracted from my new eBook “Problem Solving Decision Making”.
To explain the importance of identifying the real problem, I will share a personal business story

A number of years go I was a graduate chemical engineer working for one of the worlds largest Oil and Chemical companies, in England. We made lubricating oil additives on the production plant where I was based in my early twenties.
It was an old plant; smelly, rusting and relatively unpleasant to be in (in hindsight).

However the people who worked there knew the plant inside and out, it operated 24/7 with a dedicated team of engineers, operators, and tradespeople focussed on pumping out the tonnes of additives.

Given the age of the plant, there were lots of opportunities to fix things, daily problems to solve and a sense of adventure/dread each Monday morning, “what’s gone wrong this weekend?”

The plant was operating at full capacity and had been for some time. The company had a fairly typical silo management structure, operations and production didn’t mix much with sales /marketing etc. One July in the late 1980’s, sales of a particular additive shot to record levels. Stocks were depleted and it was clear that production capacity was not going to keep up with demand, if this continued.

A clear edict was issued from senior management to the production department – increase capacity FAST!
What followed was classic problem solving; A creative multidisciplinary team was formed, headed by someone who did not know the plant intimately so was not hamstrung by the perceived/known limitations and the way we always do things. The team included boiler makers, process operators, mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers. They asked the hard questions, thought out of the box and brainstormed.

Money was spent on capital equipment and within 3 months capacity had increased by 10%. This was a miracle of creativity and innovation on a plant this old..

The wonderful lesson from all this was not the creativity and problem solving approaches, although those were awesome to learn from and I still use some of the lessons learnt today.

The wonderful lesson was what happened to sales during the three month project.

After peaking in July, sales dived in August to record lows. In September they crept up a little and in October sales volumes were back to normal pre-July levels. The capacity increase was never used!

Hindsight is a wonderful teacher.

No one thought to question WHY July sales were so high. There was a senior management reaction to a single point trend!

The problem was defined solely as “a lack of capacity in production” and was solved beautifully. The gap was closed as requested.

The only thing wrong – was the wrong problem was solved.

Production capacity and stock levels were fine for the market. The July sales figure was an aberration.

Finally, in November the conversation which should have taken place in July happened. The Sales department mentioned that they put the prices up significantly in August. Customers had known for three months that prices were going up, but with 30 day trading terms, the canny customers bought lots of product in July to save themselves money for a few months.

In August the customers did not want product, their warehouses were already full. As their cheaper stock was used up in September and October then they came back and started buying again.

We solved the wrong problem, indeed we solved a problem that didn’t exist.

The most common reason for a poor solution is an incorrectly defined problem.
Not getting data about the problem and mistaking the symptoms for the problem are two common errors.

This takes me to business and our professional lives today.

How often do we solve completely the wrong problem, because we haven’t talked to the right people?
How often do we react to a single point trend?
Who else has answers for us, if only we would have the conversations?
Where are we trying to prove we are so good at being problem solvers and being the “go-to” person that we simply waste time energy and resources?

If you are problem solving then take time out to consider alternative ideas; new data; other explanations, talk to as many people as possible with differing perspectives; get as much real data as you can.

Check out the eBook for some great Problem Solving and Decision Making processes.

Third Sigma International is a Brisbane based Executive Coaching and Corporate Training business. Liz Cassidy publishes the popular ‘Liz’s Hot Tips’ weekly updates to entrepreneurs, managers, executives and business owners. If you’re ready to create great results in your life and business, become an outstanding leader and fast track your career.

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