Find Five Ways to Solve a Problem

Problems present themselves in any business, and our ability to anticipate them and solve them quickly is a significant differentiator between average and world class.

As I lamented my fatigue resulting from dealing with business problems, a mentor once asked me why I didn’t apply for a job delivering pizzas. Responding to my quizzical expression, he said, “Problems are a normal part of business. If you don’t want to deal with problems, find a job delivering pizzas.” (Note: Please don’t send me emails defending pizza delivery people. If you feel the need to rise to their defense, you’ve missed the point of the story.)

Indeed, problems present themselves in any business, and our ability to anticipate them and solve them quickly can be a significant differentiator between average and world class. With regard to their solutions, a tool I have used successfully in the brainstorming phase of Kaizen and Continuous Improvement events can also be an effective method to find problem solutions.

The tool begins with the premise that the first suggested solution to a problem is often not the best. Many times, when a problem presents itself, a team adopts the solution that is voiced by the first team member to suggest one or by the team member with the most forceful suggestion, losing the opportunity to consider other, possibly better, solutions.

Rather than jumping to the first or most forcefully suggested solution, I encourage my teams to “find five ways” to solve the problem. Take a significant order for a challenging part that has been expedited late in the day by a major customer who insists that the order must be available by noon the following day.

The first recommendation is that meeting the request is “impossible,” and that the customer should be contacted and the expedite request denied. The potential downside of this suggestion is likely angering a valuable customer.

A second suggestion is to break into an order currently running on the machine on which the expedite would be run and to process the expedite and meet the customer request. This has the clear benefit of satisfying the customer whose order has been expedited, though with the risk of missing the due date of the customer whose product is currently running and with added cost.

Perhaps a third suggestion is to keep several first-shift team members for several hours past their scheduled shift to run the order. This option meets the new lead time, but requires several employees to work a long day on short notice and on overtime wage rates.

A fourth suggestion is to run the high stakes, challenging expedite order on third shift so that it will be ready the following morning. This solution adds the risk that a less experienced, less supported third-shift operator could make an error and compound the problem.

A fifth and final idea is to run the order on a less efficient piece of equipment that would facilitate meeting the expedite, albeit at higher cost or perhaps even negative margin.

None of these five suggestions is perfect, though most business leaders would agree that suggestions two through five are preferable to the first one. With all five on the table, the team is in a position to make a much better decision than if it had simply accepted the first suggestion.

Perhaps the benefits of several suggestions could be combined into a course of action that is better than any of the five individually. In our scenario, the best aspects of two ideas might be combined into a separate solution with one volunteer from first shift agreeing to work with the third shift team to ensure that a more experienced team member is on hand while it is running. This solution reduces the risk of a quality issue, and since only one team member is working extra time, the financial overtime impact is reduced. Here again, this option would never have been considered had the team stopped at the first option.

Problems are a normal part of leading and managing any business, and solving them quickly and effectively can make a difference between an average and high performing organization. The next time a problem comes the way of your team, “find five ways” to solve it, and pick the best solution(s).

Once the problem is resolved, don’t forget to throw a pizza party to celebrate.