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Problem Solving – a mindset and a tool

by Chris Cooley

Problem solving is a mindsetdefinition of mindset

Problem solving is often just seen as part of the lean toolbox. This makes it all too easy to fix the problem and then move onto the next problem without fully taking the lessons on board.

Even worse if the behaviour is actually to just focus on the symptom and take a “quick fix” approach.

In any business we are faced with problems on a daily or even hourly basis. Clearly it would be unmanageable to carry out a full-scale problem solving activity for every issue that we encounter. In these circumstances a “just do it” approach based on our skills and intuition is acceptable, but it should be backed up by the structured problem solving questioning techniques.


The example I often give of the dangers of not challenging assumptions when addressing problems relates to a large manufacturing company we worked in.

Constraint – primary process delivering rubber parts to a secondary molding process

Issue – primary process downtime approximately 30%

Symptom – water pump failure causing over-heating

Solution – replace the water pump

The water pump would be replaced, the process would run at an acceptable level for a period of time, and then it would breakdown again. Because there was no problem solving mentality in the organisation at that time, the response was to replace the water pump, again and again.

The water pumps were expensive, but the disruption to the output of the factory was 100-fold more expensive.

What is the main purpose of asking questions ?

The lesson learned for the management of the company when the request to spend money landed on their desk was to ask the simple questions:value added questions

  • When was the last time this item failed
  • What was the reason
  • What was the counter-measure
  • Why has it failed again in such a short space of time
  • Why does this item keep failing
  • Why should I authorise more expenditure

We talk about questions in “Asking the obvious questions”.

In my view the main purpose of questioning is to raise awareness in the person you are challenging. This should be done in a non-threatening way, because you want them to discover the answers for themselves. This is far more powerful than simply giving them the answer.

In true lean philosophical way – ensure that your questions add value !

In the same organisation, a standard approach to dealing with problems became embedded throughout. This was initiated by the top management, but over a relatively short period of time the approach was adopted at all levels.

The simple response to any issue raised was:

  • What are the symptoms ?
  • Is there a standard ?
  • What is the change-point ?
  • 5 why did it change ?

This generated a belief in people because they knew what they were going to be asked, and therefore were able to ask the same things of themselves and their teams.

For this to become an organisational mindset, the example must come from the senior management.

Problem solving mentality is a key to Lean QCD’s approach in our training courses and in our performance therapy support.

Developing a problem solving mindset will remove waste:

  • Waste of excessive stoppages
  • Waste of repeat problems
  • Waste of un-necessary cost

and will ultimately enable and empower your people to become self-reliant and your organisation to become self-sustaining.

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