A big part of management and supervision is solving problems. In this lesson, we'll take a look at a few problem-solving methods that can be used to solve typical problems facing managers and supervisors. A short quiz follows.
Management and Problem Solving
Paul is a supervisor at a manufacturing company. A large part of his job is solving problems. Some problems are easy for Paul to solve, and some are much more difficult. Different methods or models have been created to help people, like Paul, solve problems. Let's take a look at a few of them.
Divide & Conquer
Some problems are very simple and can be solved directly without much effort. For example, Paul may have an employee call in sick. The solution is simple and direct: call another employee in or arrange for a temp. Other problems are more complex and may not be easily solved in one step. Here, Paul can employ a tried and true tactic employed by generals and mathematicians alike. He can divide and conquer.
Think about a complex algebraic equation. Most people cannot solve the equation directly in one step. They must break the problem down into several steps to reach the solution. Paul can use a similar approach and break a large problem into smaller parts that are easier to solve. For example, Paul may be faced with a steep decline in productivity related to several factors, but he only has resources available to address one factor at a time. He can divide and conquer by taking on factors causing the problem one at a time.
The divide and conquer method gives Paul a way to break down problems to manageable levels, but it doesn't necessarily provide a method for solving the parts. One approach to problem solving is the 5-step model. Let's take a quick look.
- Paul must first recognize that there is a problem and define it. You can't solve a problem if you don't know it exists, nor can you find a proper solution if you can't define what the problem is. Let's say that Paul's assembly line shift isn't meeting its productivity goals.
- Paul will then develop different possible solutions to the problem. For example, possible solutions may be hiring more people, firing unproductive workers and hiring new workers, ensuring that machinery is functioning properly or updating technology.
- Paul will then evaluate the possible solutions and choose the one that will work the best. For example, he may determine that his workers are doing everything right and all machinery is in good repair. He comes to the conclusion that he will need to request an upgrade in equipment if his company wants to increase productivity.
- The next step is for Paul to implement his solution.
- The final step is for Paul to evaluate the effectiveness of his solution. Did the equipment upgrades solve the productivity problem?
The Deming Cycle
Mangers can also use a problem-solving model called the Deming Cycle, after Dr. William Edwards Deming. It is a 4-step repetitive process used to continuously improve a process. The Deming Cycle is often referred to as the PDCA, which stands for Plan, Do, Check and Act. Let's look at how the cycle works.
Bridget is a supervisor of a design team for one of her company's flagship products. She was brought before her division's VP who just received results from a customer survey indicating that customers were dissatisfied with the consistency of the products. The VP wants the quality control issue resolved ASAP. Bridget uses the Deming Cycle to tackle the problem.
1. The first step is to plan.
At this step, Bridget is figuring out the nature of the problem and how the process failed. After the reason for the process failure is identified, Bridget will need to determine how the process must be improved and the degree of improvement necessary. Bridget will also have to figure out the change needed for the improvement and the timeline for implementation. Basically, Bridget needs to figure out why there is a variance in quality and how to improve the manufacturing process to improve quality control.
2. The next step is simply to do it.
In other words, implement the change in the process. Bridget will need to notify all affected people in the company to prepare for the change. She'll also need to take measurements to analyze whether the change solves the problem.
3. The next step is for Bridget to check.
She needs to collect the results of her measurements to review and analyze them. She may determine that the quality and consistency of the product has improved to satisfy the customers and her boss, or the results may determine more work is needed.
4. After checking, the next step is to act, which is based on the results of the check stage.
If the results indicate that the problem isn't solved, then it's back to the drawing board. She'll eliminate the change and plan for a different one. If the degree of improvement isn't sufficient, Bridget will have to tweak the process, which means going back to the plan step. If the improvement is successful and the benefits outweigh its costs, the improvement should be standardized and permanently implemented.
You should note that this approach to problem solving is a never-ending feedback loop. In other words, you look for other problems in the process or possible areas for improvement and start at the beginning of the cycle.
Let's review what we've learned. Problem solving is one of the most important duties of a manager or supervisor. Some problems are simple and can be solved relatively quickly and directly, while other problems can be large and complex. The strategy of divide and conquer can be employed to tackle a large problem one small part at a time. A simple 5-step model of problem solving consists of:
- Problem identification and definition
- Development of alternative solutions
- Evaluation and selection of a solution
- Evaluation of the solution for effectiveness
The Deming Cycle, or PDCA, can be used to solve process-orientated problems and to try to make continuous improvements. Its steps include plan, do, check and act.
Once you've finished with this lesson, you should have the ability to:
- Describe the divide and conquer strategy to problem solving
- List the steps involved in the 5-step model of problem solving
- Explain when and how to use the Deming Cycle to solve problems