Problem Solving is an Essential Skill

The importance of ‘Problem Solving’ and the ‘Continuous Improvement Process’ has been recognized by quality improvement experts, and management gurus for many years – including Phil Crosby  and William Edwards Deming.  But in the real world of industrial production and management, effective problem solving remains the exception rather than the rule, as managers and political leaders tolerate, or encourage, ‘short-term fixes’ rather than grappling with the underlying causes of our current difficulties.

Phil Crosby set out some basic principles for a problem solving culture, when he argued that:-

  • Quality is Conformance with the Requirements
  • The standard is Zero Defects
  • The measure is the Price of Non-Conformance
  • The method is Prevention
  • The process is Continuous Improvement

Crosby focused on the hidden price of non-conformance to drive continuous improvement, while Deming focused on the use of statistical tools and techniques to identify, control and eliminate the sources of variation in product design and manufacturing. However, Crosby and Deming agreed that there are no prizes for doing the wrong thing more efficiently than your competitors, so we must understand 'added value' and market requirements in order to eliminate waste or muda and reduce reduce the price of non-conformance.

The tools and techniques required to solve complex technical and organisational problems have now matured into a well documented body of knowledge that is freely available, but their application remains patchy and inconsistent, a fact recognized by Deming in 1993 when he wrote Out of the Crisis:-

Measures of productivity are like statistics on accidents: they tell you all about the number of accidents in the home, on the road and at the workplace, but they do not tell you how to reduce the frequency of accidents.

It is unfortunately to be feared that quality assurance means, in many places, a deluge of figures that tell how many defective items of this type or that were produced last month, with comparisons month by month and year by year. Figures like this tell the management how things have been going, but they do not point the way to improvement.

Performance measurement and data gathering, must not be confused with problem solving. But, it is the systematic analysis and interpretation of the data collected that allows us to identify 'failure patterns' and find the causes of failure, or evaluate improvements in product and process design. When we accept that failures and quality problems are caused by the way we design our products and processes, then they become preventable - providing we are prepared to make improvements through the application of appropriate prevention and detection controls to eliminate the causes of failure.

Although radical changes to the product and process design may sometimes be required, their progressive refinement and optimization through a process of problem solving and continuous improvement is the key to business improvement and profitability.

People Who Solve Problems

Problem Solvers are not just dissatisfied with the status-quo, they will:-

  • Understand the scale and magnitude of the problem
  • Investigate investigate how and why things go wrong as they search for causes
  • Develop, test and implement 'solutions' that eliminate, prevent or detect the causes of failure
  • Identify and address the 'systemic causes' of chronic and recurring failures

However, recent research by Deloitte into the strategic priorities for vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers, has identified inadequate ‘Problem Solving Skills’ as one of the most significant barriers to sustainable quality improvement, future growth and long-term profitability.

Deloitte's report ‘Quality 20:20: Automotive Industry’s View on the Current State of Quality and a Strategic Path Forward’ identified the following priorities for OEM's and their suppliers:

Top Concerns Identified By Deloitte (2015)

Sadly Deloitte's report suggests that the industry faces a double whammy - as the loss of experienced problem solvers compounds the existing 'skills shortage' throughout the industry. 

Lessons from History

The film - 12 Years a Slave tells the powerful story of a Negro ‘Freeman’, Solomon Northup, robbed of his freedom and sold into slavery – forced to work on a cotton plantation in the southern states. Although warned not to draw attention to his talents and education –“if you want to survive down here” – it quickly becomes apparent that Solomon Northrup is a practical problem solver – improving productivity and reducing waste on the plantation. While Sep, his overseer, regarding him as an insubordinate threat to his own authority, is determined to ‘break his rebellious spirit’.

In one scene, Solomon provokes a life threatening confrontation with Sep when expressing his deep frustration, he says:-

 “I did as instructed. If there's something wrong, it's wrong with the instructions!”

Thankfully slavery has been abolished, but Solomon's cry of frustration still echoes through organisations with dysfunctional systems and processes, often overwhelmed by expensive management initiatives that fail to deliver the promised improvements in productivity and long-term profitability.

The organisation and management of the plantation slowly crushed Solomon Northup's problem solving initiatives, because his natural curiousity exposed the arrogance and ignorance of his 'managers'.

Perhaps modern managers complaining about inadequate 'problem solving skills' on the 'shop floor', or elsewhere,  should careful what they pray for. Effective 'problem solvers' will inevitably expose management mistakes and incompetence, without fear or favour, while managing and 'empowered team' of 'problem solvers' can be both stimulating and challenging!

If we want formal 'Problem Solving Training' training to be effective - we must encourage people's natural curiousity and allow them to question our judgement, holding us to account when we make mistakes.

Building a Problem Solving Organisation

There are, I believe, several reasons for the failure to deploy the available problem solving tools and techniques, which must be addressed is we want to establish a problem solving culture in our organisations.

Firstly, we must challenge the complacency that accepts ‘failure as normal’.

During a recent training course, in a small engineering company:-

  • The Quality Manager explained “You will never achieve Zero Defects here, because there are too many variables in our process”
  • While his staff complained "We don’t have time to follow the process properly, as we have to meet unrealistic delivery schedules"

High levels of rework inevitably disrupt production schedules and as more errors and omissions are made in the ensuing chaos, a viscous circle develops -  as today's production is disrupted by rework from the previous shift. But, the delegates were genuinely shocked when further investigation revealed that 15-20% of their departmental capacity was being consumed by ‘scrap and rework’, with a hidden cost of £8,000 / month.

Measures of Performance and KPI's are an important means of communication in the workplace, even if they do not immediately reveal the causes of failure or poor performance. When properly chosen and explained, KPI's :-

  • Put our current performance into context, identifying trends and patterns over time 
  • Alert us when product or process deviates from the expected norm
  • Allow the impact of 'improvements' to be assessed

Perhaps the most important characteristic of a well chosen KPI is that it arouses the problem solver's curiosity, as he wonders what influences performance. However, identifying the causes of failure, so that we can prevent and detect them and avoid recurring episodes, requires the 'tactile knowledge' of process operators and the 'intellectual knowledge' of the experts who designed and manage the process - so we must bridge the divide between them.

To unlock people’s problem solving potential we need to provide an ‘aspirational vision’ to motivate people – and demonstrate that we are committed to achieving that goal.

Damaged Shaft CouplingSecondly, we must take ownership of the problems we encounter at all levels of the organisation, striking an appropriate balance between delegation and micro-management.

Organisations that allow managers to abdicate responsibility for the ‘technical trivia’ that determines the success or failure of the enterprise, will produce Teflon-Managers. Sadly lacking the credibility to drive problem solving initiatives and believing that their failures are caused by ‘random events’ and ‘external factors’, they will avoid responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It is never their problem!

On the other hand, micro-managers may have a detailed knowledge of the process with a good eye for details, but have become control-freaks unable to delegate or trust the people working for them. Micro-managers, unlike mentors, are firmly committed to ‘command and control’ – knowing that problems would be solved if people would ‘just do what they are told!’

Micro-Managers and Teflon-Managers are equally confident that ‘other people’ cause their problems, making is difficult for problem solvers to question their way of doing things, or suggest improvements that may prevent chronic and recurring failures.

In a problem solving organisation Effective Managers know they are responsible for the process and its failures, so they will not try to shift the blame onto others or abdicate responsibility for their own decisions. This gives problem solvers the freedom to question and ultimately improve, the instructions embedded in the systems and process. When managers ask problem solving teams to help them improve their own performance, they sweep away the cultural impediments to process improvement.

Finally, we need to equip staff with an understanding of the problem solving tools and techniques we expect them to employ.

In his book Creativity, Challenge and Courage, Eiji Toyoda wrote:-

Society has reached the point where one can push a button and be immediately deluged with technical and managerial information, This all very convenient of course, but if one is not careful there is a danger of losing the ability to think. We must that in the end it is the individual human being who must solve the problem.

So must we get people thinking, then provide them with regular stimulation to develop their analytical and creative thought process, and most importantly listen when they highlight our mistakes - if we a serious about problem solving.

Problems solvers must learn to:-

  • Gather evidence, by direct observation and from ‘management systems’
  • Analyse the evidence to identify ‘failure patterns’ in order to discover the causes of failure
  • Build a consensus across departments, so that people understand how their actions impact product quality and process performance
  • Propose solutions that can be tested and implemented with the available resources
  • Ensure that improvements become the ‘new normal’ and are sustained

But their problem solving skills must be nurtured and developed - supported by managers willing to accept responsibility for poor product and process design or poorr organisation when these are revealed to be the cause of the problem.

Developing Problem Solving Skills

In the right environment, problem solvers will solve problems and drive continuous improvement - although they may be hindered by 'poor technique' or an inadequate understanding of 'formal methods'. That is why the training we deliver, for individuals and teams, is designed to accelerate the development of their 'problem solving skills' and can be tailored to meet the needs of your organisation. However, their newly acquired skills must be nurtured and encouraged by the example of managers, more interested in problem solving than finding a politically convenient 'short term fix' that protects their personal reputation.

For more information about our Problem Solving Training and Facilitation, why not contact Phil Stunell now?

When do you need an expert?

If you are inPreston Law Centrevolved in a dispute that can not be settled quickly by negotiation, you may be forced to contemplate 'Legal Action' - perhaps to obtain compensation or enforce an agreement or contract with your supplier or client. Although you may be convinced that you have a 'strong case' based on the 'known facts', rushing into Legal Action should be avoided - because the process may prove very time consuming and expensive while causing irreparable damage to your business and personal relationships.

If however, you are contemplating or involved in legal action, you will need to obtain advice from a qualified solicitor who will explain the legal process, and advise you how to proceed.

If the dispute depends, as it often does, on the analysis and interpretation of factual evidence, your solicitor may suggest that you also need an 'Expert' to help you understand the evidence and explain it to the Court. This may be essential if your are challenging other people's professional judgement - for example how a product or process has been designed or manufactured - because you will not have the knowledge or credibility to explain what was wrong in court

How can you find an Expert?

Your solicitor may recommend an Expert with experience of the matters in dispute, who is competent to 'give an opinion' and act as an expert during litigation. Although your solicitor's professional network may include experts in some disciplines such as accountants and building surveyors that they have worked with previously, they may not know any Experts with the knowledge and experience required to investigate and explain your particuar case . Fortunately, there are directories that list Experts in different disciplines and these include, among others:-


Book by Michael KennedyDuring the 1980's the automotive industry in Europe and the USA became increasingly concerned about competition from Japan and Asia, because new entrants to the market were gaining significant market share and attacking their traditional domination of the global automotive market. In order to understand the source of their apparent competitive advantage, and the threat to their market dominance, the industry sponsored a research project run by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to compare and contrast different companies in the industry.

In their book The Machine That Changed the World - based on the MIT study, James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos explained how the Japanese and to a lesser extent Korean producers were building their competitive advantage based on the principles of Lean Thinking and Lean Manufacturing - with a relentless obsession with continuous improvement techniques to identify and eliminate sources or variation and waste in their production processes. Reading the book when it was first published in 1990 - it was apparent that this was not a passing fashion - but represented a fundamental shift in the industry that threatened the survival of many well known companies and established brands.

For me, as an employee of company under threat of extinction, the most


Car ignition switch with hanging keys

GM's Ignition Switch Recall

General Motors (GM) has launched a series of product recalls since January 2014, due to problems with ignition switches installed in vehicles built since 2003 - which may result in 'moving stalls' or disable the air bag system moments before a crash. GM acknowledges that at least 13 people have been killed in crashes when the air-bags did not deploy - although air-bag deployment would have been expected, judging by the vehicle damage and circumstances of the crash.

The problems, caused by poor design design of the ignition switch, were first reported to GM during the launch of the Chevrolet Cobalt in 2003, by employees driving early production vehicles in their 'Captive Fleet Trials' program, - as well as journalists during the press launch, who reported 'moving stalls' - when the engine shut-down as the ignition key moved out of the "run position" while they were driving.

The Valukas Report released by GM in May 2014 examines 'who knew what when'- and details their inadequate response to customer complaints and litigation, from 2003 until the launch of recall program in 2014. The picture that emerges, by their own admission, is one of professional incompetence and dysfunctional systems where 'everything-that-could-go-wrong-did'.

While the lawyers and politicians argue about alleged cover-ups and blame, we prefer to focus on what we can learn from GM's mistakes and how well established tools and techniques can be used to prevent similar mistakes happening again.


Vehicle Ignition Switch and KeyGeneral Motors (GM) has become embroiled in a political and legal firestorm, following it's acknowledgement that from 2003 until 2007 it supplied Cobalt and Ion cars fitted with a dangerous and defective ignition switch, that could prevent the air bags deploying in an accident - resulting in at least 13 unnecessary deaths since 2003.

Anton Valukas, a lawyer commissioned by GM to investigate 'how and why we got into this mess' has now produced his report for the GM Board - and a redacted copy is available on the NHTSA website as a free download. Based on detailed research and over 300 witness interviews, the 325 page report presents a remarkably frank and brutal expose of the events that allowed a life threatening defect to reach production  - and GM's failure to identify or solve the problem for over 10 years. 

Like most ignition switches, the unit fitted to


US Vehicle Recalls / Sales

Vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers are becoming uncomfortably familiar with the need to recall their products to fix 'safety defects' - and the negative publicity that such recalls can attract. In fact, data supplied by NHTSA - the US regulator for vehicle safety - shows that a 'typical vehicle' sold in the US will need to be recalled more than once to correct safety defects - and the situation has been getting progressively worse since the 1990's. 

The long-term trend may be driven by:-

  • The increasing complexity of modern vehicles
  • Public expectations of 'absolute safety'
  • More effective regulation, especially in the US market

Although some recent recalls have been the result of 'complex technology gone wrong' - and some are fundamental design problems - many are the result of simple process errors in the supply chain and production process.

With annual sales of 15 million vehicles, according to NHTSA, the 31 product recalls launched in the US during January and February 2014 involved 2,794,302 vehicles and 3 million child seats - with defects that included:-

  • Incorrect information on product labels
  • Doors that could not be opened
  • Steering boxes with the gears that can't turn
  • Worn ignition switches that prevent the air-bags working
  • Wiring faults that may cause fires
  • Bubbles in windscreen glass
  • Child seats that won't release your child

Under the US TREAD ACT manufacturers and component suppliers are required to notify .....




faulty battery box The purpose of a Failure Modes Effects Analysis (FMEA) is to identify how a product or process could fail to satisfy customer requirements and expectations, ensuring that action is taken to mitigate the effects of failure so that the impact on users is reduced to an acceptable level.

We recently identified a quality problem with the Fisher Price Musical Gym. Like many toys this requires a couple of AA batteries to power the audio output - but fitting them proved difficult due to a manufacturing defect shown below:

In this case, although the problem is revealed by a simple visual inspection - the defect passed through the production process and reached the end user, who not surprisingly rejected the product as 'not fit for purpose'.

But how would an FMEA prevent this type of customer complaint?

  • In this design the two batteries are fitted 'in series'. and each battery is located by two electrical contacts, a spring providing the negative contact pushes the battery into contact with the positive terminal formed by a  pressed plate.
  • The battery terminals are located in cavities in the battery housing, that are symmetrical about center line.


Although Key Performance Indicators (KPI's) are commonly used to measure the performance of organisations, departments or processes - and we now have access to more historic data than ever before, historic performance data will not drive process improvement without an effective management system.

Working with Gerdau the Brazilian steel producer, Qualitin have developed a new new approach to KPI Management that uses historic performance data to drive continuous improvement, which has been tried and tested by many of the most successful companies in Brazil.

As Qualitin expands from Brazil to support their global clients, they are appointing Business Partners in the strategically important UK and European markets, to support the implementation of their ICG tool kit for KPI Management.

As Carlos Cordal recently explained:-

"We came from Brazil, were we have already a huge legion of fanatics, that seemed to be enough for us for a while. After a successful project implementation in the UK and several key European Countries, it made us open our eyes to the world and take on board the mission of changing the way business is done worldwide. The only way to achieve our new goal is with a selected network of first class partners. Stunell technology is one of these, with a track record of successes and huge business and engineering expertise, I'm pretty sure is a recipe for success anywhere we go."

Phil Stunell, Director of Stunell Technology commented that:-

"We look forward to working with Qualitin as we support clients implementing KPI Management - Qualitin's ICG Tool Kit transforms the way KPI's are used and will enable managers to become far more effective and drive continuous improvement throughout the business"

 Your can learn more our approach to KPI management here, or contact Phil Stunell to discuss your requirements

Stunell Technology's new website is going live in November 2013.

The site developed with Deeper Blue Marketing includes new content and additional resources to help you. Your feedback is always welcome - so why not let us know what you think by calling 01772 542240 or contacting Phil Stunel