Easy Problem Solving Using the 4-step Method
At a recent hospital town forum, hospital leaders are outlining the changes coming when a lone, brave nurse raises her hand and says, “We just can’t take any more changes. They are layered on top of each other and each one is rolled out in a different way. We are exhausted and it’s overloading us all.”
“Flavor of the Month” Fatigue
Change fatigue. You hear about it in every industry, from government sectors to software design to manufacturing to healthcare and more. When policy and leadership changes and process improvement overlap it’s no surprise when people complain about “flavor of the month,” and resist it just so they can keep some routine to their days.
In a time where change is required just to keep up with the shifting environment, one way to ease fatigue is to standardize HOW we change. If we use a best practice for solving problems, we can ensure that the right people are involved and problems are solved permanently, not temporarily. Better yet, HOW we change can become the habit and routine we long for.
The 4-step Problem Solving Method
The model we’ve used with clients is based on the A3 problem-solving methodology used by many “lean” production-based companies. In addition to being simpler, our 4-step method is visual, which helps remind the user what goes into each box.
The steps are as follows
- Develop a Problem Statement
- Determine Root Causes
- Rank Root Causes in Order of Importance
- Create an Action Plan
Step 1: Develop a Problem Statement
Developing a good problem statement always seems a lot easier than it generally turns out to be. For example, this statement: “We don’t have enough staff,” frequently shows up as a problem statement. However, it suggests the solution—“GET MORE STAFF” — and fails to address the real problem that more staff might solve, such as answering phones in a timely manner.
The trick is to develop a problem statement that does not suggest a solution. Avoiding the following words/phrases: “lack of,” “no,” “not enough,” or “too much” is key. When I start to fall into the trap of suggesting a solution, I ask: “So what problem does that cause?” This usually helps to get to a more effective problem statement.
Once you’ve developed a problem statement, you’ll need to define your target goal, measure your actual condition, then determine the gap. If we ran a restaurant and our problem was: “Customers complaining about burnt toast during morning shift,” the target goal might be: “Toast golden brown 100% of morning shift.”
Focus on a tangible, achievable target goal then measure how often that target is occurring. If our actual condition is: “Toast golden brown 50% of the time,” then our gap is: “Burnt toast 50% of the time.” That gap is now a refined problem to take to Step 2.
Step 2: Determine Root Causes
In Step 2, we want to understand the root causes. For example, if the gap is burnt toast 50% of the time, what are all the possible reasons why?
This is when you brainstorm. It could be an inattentive cook or a broken pop-up mechanism. Cooks could be using different methods to time the toasting process or some breads toast more quickly. During brainstorming, you’ll want to include everyone in the process since observing these interactions might also shed light on why the problem is occurring.
Once we have an idea of why, we then use the 5-why process to arrive at a root cause. Ask “Why?” five times or until it no longer makes sense to ask. Root causes can be tricky. For example, if the pop up mechanism is broken you could just buy a new toaster, right? But if you asked WHY it broke, you may learn cooks are pressing down too hard on the pop up mechanism, causing it to break. In this case, the problem would just reoccur if you bought a new toaster.
When you find you are fixing reoccurring problems that indicates you haven’t solved for the root cause. Through the 5-why process, you can get to the root cause and fix the problem permanently.
Step 3: Rank Root Causes
Once you know what’s causing the problem (and there may be multiple root causes), it’s time to move to Step 3 to understand which causes, if solved for, would close your gap. Here you rank the root causes in order of importance by looking at which causes would have the greatest impact in closing the gap.
There may be times when you don’t want to go after your largest root cause (perhaps because it requires others to change what they are doing, will take longer, or is dependent on other things getting fixed, etc). Sometimes you’ll find it’s better to start with a solution that has a smaller impact but can be done quickly.
Step 4: Create an Action Plan
In Step 4 you create your action plan — who is going to do what and by when. Documenting all of this and making it visible helps to communicate the plan to others and helps hold them accountable during implementation.
This is where your countermeasures or experiments to fix the problem are detailed. Will we train our chefs on how to use a new “pop-up mechanism” free toaster? Will we dedicate one toaster for white bread and one for wheat?
Make sure to measure your results after you’ve implemented your plan to see if your target is met. If not, that’s okay; just go through the steps again until the problem is resolved.
Using the 4-step method has been an easy way for teams to change how they solve problems. One team I was working with started challenging their “solution jumps” and found this method was a better way to avoid assumptions which led to never really solving their problems. It was easy to use in a conference room and helped them make their thinking visual so everyone could be involved and engaged in solving the problems their team faced.
Do you have a problem-solving method that you use at your worksite? Let us know in the comments below.
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