2 Approaches to Problem Solving

By the Numbers

Problem solve: The best and worse approaches to problem solving

The Detroit museum bearing the name of the city’s best-known businessperson is one of the most interesting in the nation. Not only do you see the important contributions Henry Ford made you see the effect of his work as it industrialized a nation.

Contrary to common belief, he did not invent the automobile. What he invented was much more significant than a mere car. He invented the way cars could be manufactured in the numbers that would be required by the public. He invented the assembly line.

Visitors to the museum see his original assembly line at the museum. One can almost imagine the workers assembling the vehicles as you see the workstations. Primitive by today’s standards, Ford’s original assemble line had one thing in common with today’s technology. Things would go wrong!

A common workplace scenario

Virtually every production manager has had to deal with equipment failure at the peak of demand. The Sales Department is yelling to get the orders out. Customer Service is urgently asking about individual orders. Overtime is a possibility, but you are already over budget. Despite all this the day seems to be going pretty good because your best shift has just taken their positions and the belts are moving at near record speeds.

Then suddenly an alarm goes off because a key piece of equipment has failed.

In most facilities the key emphasis immediately becomes, “Who is responsible?” Purveyors of this question will justify it by saying, “we need to know who made the mistake, so it doesn't happen in the future.”

Actually, this question is even more detrimental than the breakdown in the production line. The problem with finding fault is that it automatically assumes a single person or department is responsible for the failure. Although true in a rare number of cases, the real cause of problems in an organization stems from the culture of the organization.

In the case of the broken-down production line, the most important thing to do is to get the production line running again. The overriding question should be, “how we work together as a team to get the line up and running as quickly as possible?”

Once the production line is running, it becomes acceptable to find out how we can prevent a future breakdown.

However, the question we need to ask ourselves is not, “who is responsible?” The correct question is, “how did we create a culture that allowed this breakdown to happen, and how can we adjust our culture to get better results in the future?’

I have worked with hundreds of companies over the years and have been amazed at the difference in these two approaches. Regardless of which approach an organization is taking, they always seem to feel the result will be the same - a better future.

In reality, those companies looking for someone to blame have a broken culture that will lead to ultimate failure. Through a fault-finding expedition they ultimately create a culture where employees are always looking to save themselves and their jobs. This approach requires individuality at the sake of teamwork.

On the other hand, when a company understands the problem is the culture, instead of the people, they inherently take a progressive approach that produces true long-term results.

Henry Ford said it best, “Don't find fault, find a solution.” The solution-based approach is not so naïve to think that a single individual or department may have been responsible for the error as it is wise to understand the culture can single-handedly make a company poor, good, or even great.