GOT A PROBLEM? Solve It with One Word

Published in INSIGHT - Summer 2017
By Charles Waldo

If there is one thing organizations and individuals have in abundance, it is problems. They come in every conceivable type, size, frequency of occurrence, and magnitude of difficulty in solving. 

What is a “problem?” One definition states, “A problem is a difficulty, obstruction, or obstacle that hinders or impedes progress towards a goal.” Another definition states that a problem is “A deviation from a known or agreed-to standard.” An old adage says, “A problem is simply an opportunity waiting to be borne.”

Whatever the definition, problems will always be with us in one form or another. A friend of mine, the manager of a local manufacturing plant, describes his normal work day as being like a fireman constantly rushing from one fire (aka “problem”) to another with never a break using a leaky hose with low water pressure. Wow! What’s a normal work day for you like? I hope it is not as frantic as my friend’s. 

While the nature of life is such that problems will never totally go away, one way to lessen the toll of a problem is to get at its root cause, then develop countermeasures to fix it so it will not come back – bury it deep and permanently. 

  A Toyota approach to problem-solving.

The Toyota Motor Corporation is generally regarded as one of the very best large-scale manufacturing and service firms in the world. Its various brands (Lexus, Camry, Prius, etc.) are among the top sellers in the U.S. and always score at or near the top of the J.D. Power Company’s quality rankings. Designing, assembling, and selling high quality automobiles in massive numbers is as daunting a challenge as any company can face. For example, the 5,100 employees at Toyota’s Princeton, Indiana plant produced over 400,00 vehicles in 2016 which works out to be a finished car about every 30-40 seconds. These kinds of numbers generate many challenges! (Aka “problems.”)
The one-word problem solver

Years ago Toyota unveiled a problem-identification and solving process that helps explain its business success. Dubbed the “5-Why” method, it recognized that it makes no sense to apply “quick fixes” to problems since they will only come back again and cause more pain. Better to dig tirelessly and systematically into the “layers” of a problem until you get to the bottom – the “root cause”—then fix it. Dig relentlessly asking, “Why?” until you get to the base. Do not accept the first “reason(s).” 

 An example of the 5-Why method at work:
Let us look at an example of the 5-Why process being used by a quality engineer seeking to understand why there are occasional, unexpected stoppages of a machine that shuts down a total manufacturing line. He is interviewing the line’s supervisor and the department manager.

Quality Engineer: What is the situation? 
Supervisor: From time to time a cutting machine will unexpectedly stop. Since it is part of an interlinked, automated process, its stoppage will also stop the other machines in the production sequence and idle the operators until fixed.
QE: How often do the stoppages occur? 
S: Maybe two or three times a week.
QE: Is this stoppage frequency acceptable? 
S: No, but it may just be the nature of the machines we are using.
QE: Are stoppage times predictable? S: No. They seem random.
QE: Why does the machine stop? S: Because a fuse blows.
QE: What do you do to fix the situation? 
S: Replace the fuse as fast as possible to minimize downtime and then speed up the line to make up for lost production. We also change the lubricating oil at the same time.
QE: Did that solve the problem? 
S: No, the machine works fine for a while but then that fuse will blow and we go through the shut-down process again. Also, when we speed up to make up for lost production, quality levels slip a bit and rejections of finished product go up.
QE: Why do the fuses blow? 
S: They are overloaded and blow for safety reasons.
QE: Why is there an overload? 
S: Because the bearing lubrication was inadequate.
QE: Why was the bearing lubrication inadequate? 
S: Because the lubrication pump did not function right.
QE: Why did the lubrication pump not work right? 
S: Because the pump axle gets “hung up” and won’t turn.
QE: Why is the pump axle hanging up? 
S: Because sludge gets into the pump axle housing. So we clean off the pump axle, change the fuse, put in fresh, clean oil, and keep our fingers crossed. All this takes non-productive time which drives costs up.
QE: Why does sludge get in to the pump axle housing?
 S: I hadn’t really thought about it but it’s probably because there is no oil strainer to do this important job.
QE: Why is there no strainer? 
S: That’s the way the machine was made. I guess the manufacturer didn’t feel there was a need for a strainer plus not having one reduces the machine’s initial selling price and our purchasing people are always interested in keeping prices down.
QE: Not having a strainer and a status check system seem to be the base problems and they won’t just go away on their own. Countermeasures need to be taken. What will work best? 
S: I’ll get with our purchasing manager and manufacturing, engineering head, explain the situation, and, hopefully, they’ll get with the machine’s manufacturer to retro-fit our machines with strainers ASAP. We will also look at what else is on the market as better machine replacements. We will also set up a strainer maintenance schedule to prevent clogging of the strainer.
Quick fixes do not work out in the long run.

This “digging in depth” approach to problem-solving might seem simple on the surface but is all too often absent from most American companies’ day-to-day activities. The quick-fix, Band-Aid solution seems to be favored on this side of the Pacific. “Permanently” fixing a problem is a matter of discipline, attitude, culture, persistence, and taking the long view, not the use of “sophisticated” quality programs such as Six Sigma.

A final tip to successfully use the 5-Why method is to be sure all parties involved understand that no one is having “blame” pinned on them. You are just trying objectively to identify ways to permanently solve problems and make life easier and more productive for everyone. Give it a try and, as always, good luck.
PS – This method is called the “5 Why” since Toyota has found that “Why?” must be asked at a minimum of five times before the root cause is identified.

The late Charles Waldo, Ph.D., was a Professor of Marketing (ret.) at Anderson University’s Falls School of Business.