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Cultural and Tactical Perspectives on Problem Solving

Lean/TPM Knowledge

We often hear from clients that one of the challenges they run into in applying Lean methodologies to daily work isn’t necessarily applying various tools and techniques, it’s how to address the inevitable problems that arise along the way.

We all know there are never a shortage of problems…they’re everywhere. No business is immune to them. They serve a purpose…to provide opportunities for alternative solutions, and improvements in safety and efficiencies. Simply put, problem solving is the process by which we find solutions. After all, isn’t problem solving synonymous with continuous improvement – the very core of what we’re trying to accomplish in the context of a Lean initiative?

To explore problem solving from both a cultural and tactical perspective, we sat down with Jim Vatalaro, senior management consultant with Productivity Inc. and 20+ year veteran of the manufacturing industry, to gather some critical insights.

To gauge the role problem solving plays in your organization from a cultural perspective, Jim suggested asking a few key questions:

  1. What is your definition of problem solving – are you solving problems or just explaining problems?
  2. Who’s involved in your problem solving efforts? Has the expectation been set that the broader employee community has become proficient in solving problems?
  3. To what extent does management play the role of coach or teacher in the various problem solving methodologies?
  4. How many techniques in the pyramid do you (employees) have competencies in?

The answers to these questions are often enlightening. Like most CI initiatives, Jim cautioned that the Who is responsible for implementation is equally as important as the How. The people doing the problem solving should be the people performing the work – those in the value adding community, not just those supervising or overseeing the effort. A successful problem solving culture requires involvement from all employees, especially those on the front lines.

When it comes to the How, Jim emphasized a few pertinent points to keep in mind:


  • Problem-solving must be approached systematically – it’s a process
  • Stay focused – solve meaningful problems
  • Use cross-functional teams – get various perspectives and opinions
  • Document solutions to ensure sustainment
  • Don’t make assumptions – pursue root cause with an open mind

Recommendations / Best Practices

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel – check to see if other areas of the business have already tackled similar issues
  2. Use the right problem solving tool for the right problem – see pyramid below

Pit Falls to Avoid

  1. Accepting problems as the norm – don’t let the old way of doing things cloud your judgement. It’s critical to look at the process with a fresh perspective.
  2. Not using the 5-Why process as a way to get to root cause
  3. Not having the right people on task – cross-functionality is a must

There are a variety of team-based problem solving techniques to draw from to solve problems (see pyramid along with a brief description of each, below). The key is educating employees in the techniques so they can identify when and how to use each effectively, based on the size and scope of the problem. Jim reminds us not to go for the big, shiny object (i.e. 3P), when a 5 Why analysis can do the job.

5 Whys: a process of asking “Why” to get to root cause. A technique best used for problems as they occur throughout the work day.

CEDAC: a fishbone diagram that tracks suggestions for improvement to get from problem effect to target effect using a series of fact and idea cards. Most useful for reoccurring problems.

A3: refers to the one-page report used to consolidate all relevant information required to make decisions related to the problem to be solved. They’re used to address more complex problems and often require a charter or sponsor to manage the process.

Six Sigma/DMAIC: a specific method used for quantitative analysis to address variation in complex, ongoing problems. Requires software tools, a sponsor, charter, and management oversight.

3P: Designed for the development of new products and processes, 3P can also be used in response to chronic problems, i.e. ergonomic issues. Due to its complexity, 3P projects require management oversight, a sponsor, charter, and separate work area.

Interested in learning more about the role of leadership in problem solving? Join us for our Lean Leadership Event, taking place October 13-16, 2020 in Chicago, IL. Give us a call or visit our website for more information, or if we can help with any of your CI and TPM, from certification to on-site training and consulting.