From Problems to Solutions: 7 Essential Problem-Solving Techniques for Manufacturing Teams

From Problems to Solutions: 7 Essential Problem-Solving Techniques for Manufacturing Teams

From production line hiccups to supply chain disruptions, the challenges confronting manufacturing teams are as diverse as the products they create. In the dynamic landscape of manufacturing, the ability to swiftly identify, analyze, and resolve problems is not just advantageous—it’s essential for maintaining operational efficiency and ensuring product quality. Yet, with the spectrum of issues encountered on the production floor, employing a one-size-fits-all approach to problem-solving is impractical. Instead, mastering a repertoire of problem-solving techniques tailored to different scenarios becomes indispensable. Just as a skilled artisan selects the right tool for the job, manufacturing teams must equip themselves with a diverse toolkit of problem-solving methodologies to navigate the complexity of their operational challenges.

In this blog, I will describe seven different problem-solving techniques, each offering a unique perspective and methodology to address the multifaceted challenges of the manufacturing environment. Just as a skilled artisan selects the right tool for the job, manufacturing teams must equip themselves with a diverse toolkit of problem-solving methodologies to navigate the complexity of their operational challenges.

Table of Contents

The Variety of Problems in a Manufacturing Setting

In a manufacturing site, the spectrum of problems that can arise is as diverse as the products being produced. From equipment malfunctions and quality defects to supply chain disruptions and safety hazards, the challenges faced on the production floor are multifaceted and ever-evolving. Recognizing this variety of problems is crucial, as relying solely on one type of problem-solving technique may prove insufficient in addressing the array of issues that can arise. Each problem possesses its own unique characteristics, requiring a tailored approach to effectively diagnose and resolve it.

Having individuals trained in a variety of problem-solving techniques is essential to navigate this complexity effectively. While certain issues may lend themselves well to methods like root cause analysis or the 5 Whys technique, others may necessitate more complex methodologies such as Six Sigma DMAIC. Moreover, softer skills like communication and collaboration are equally vital in facilitating problem-solving efforts, especially when addressing issues that involve multiple stakeholders or require cross-functional collaboration.

By cultivating a diverse toolkit of problem-solving techniques and fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement, manufacturing organizations can equip their teams to tackle the full spectrum of challenges that arise on the production floor. Through proactive training and skill development, individuals become adept at recognizing patterns, identifying root causes, and implementing effective solutions, ultimately driving efficiency, quality, and innovation within the manufacturing environment.

In a manufacturing site, the spectrum of problems that can arise is as diverse as the products being produced.

The 5 Whys

In the quest for problem-solving and continuous improvement, understanding the underlying causes of issues is paramount. One powerful tool that has stood the test of time in the realm of problem-solving methodologies is the “5 Whys” technique. Originating from the Toyota Production System, this simple yet effective method has been adopted across industries worldwide to delve deep into the root causes of problems. 

To seek out the cause of an issue or problem, you ask why it happened. But probing just one layer gets you just the first cause of the problem. The root cause is usually much deeper. you have to keep probing. You have to keep drilling down until you are justified that you have got to the root cause of the problem.

In it’s “purist” form, 5 why only means that you ask why 5 times or until you can no longer come up with anymore causes. Here is an example of a completed 5 Why analysis exercise.

Problem: There was an injury caused by a fall.

Why did the person fall? The floor was wet.

Why was the floor wet? There was a leaking valve.

Why was the valve leaking? The gasket was bad.

Why was the gasket bad? There is no Preventative Maintenance program for checking the valve gaskets.

5 Whys Method  Summary:

What is it: The 5 Whys technique is a systematic problem-solving approach that involves asking “why” multiple times to uncover the root cause of an issue.

Purpose: Its primary purpose is to delve deep into the underlying reasons behind problems, enabling effective problem resolution and continuous improvement.

Difficulty Level: While the technique is simple in concept, navigating through multiple layers of “why” questions can sometimes be challenging, requiring critical thinking and persistence.

Types of Manufacturing Problems: The 5 Whys method is ideal for addressing recurring or complex issues in manufacturing, such as equipment malfunctions, quality defects, and process inefficiencies.

Number of People: It can be conducted by a small team or individual, but involving multiple stakeholders with diverse perspectives can enhance the effectiveness of the analysis.

Supplies Needed: The primary requirement is a structured approach to questioning and documentation, along with access to relevant data and information pertaining to the problem at hand.

To find out more about the 5 Whys Technique, complete 5 Why Analysis Online Training Course.

Fishbone Diagram

In the vast landscape of problem-solving techniques, few tools are as versatile and powerful as the fishbone diagram, also known as the Ishikawa diagram or cause-and-effect diagram. Originating from quality management practices in the 1960s, this visual tool has become a cornerstone of problem-solving methodologies across industries, including manufacturing.

Understanding the Fishbone Diagram
The fishbone diagram derives its name from its distinctive shape, resembling the skeleton of a fish. At its core, this diagram serves as a structured brainstorming tool to identify potential causes of a problem. By visually mapping out the various factors contributing to an issue, teams can gain deeper insights into its root causes and devise effective solutions.

Anatomy of the Fishbone Diagram
The fishbone diagram consists of a horizontal line representing the problem or effect being analyzed, with several lines branching off like the bones of a fish. These branches categorize different potential causes of the problem, typically organized into major categories such as:

Methods: Procedures, processes, or systems contributing to the problem.
Machines: Equipment, tools, or technology involved in the process.
Materials: Raw materials, components, or inputs used in production.
Manpower: Human resources, skills, or training relevant to the issue.
Measurement: Metrics, data, or quality control measures affecting the problem.
Environment: Physical conditions, external factors, or contextual influences.

Image of Fishbone diagram problem solving tool.

Applying the Fishbone Diagram in Manufacturing
In manufacturing settings, the fishbone diagram is invaluable for diagnosing a wide range of issues, from production inefficiencies to quality defects. Let’s consider an example:

Problem: Decreased production output on the assembly line.

Categories on the Fishbone Diagram:

Methods: Inefficient workflow processes, lack of standard operating procedures.
Machines: Equipment breakdowns, outdated machinery.
Materials: Low-quality raw materials, supply chain disruptions.
Manpower: Inadequate staffing levels, insufficient training.
Measurement: Inaccurate performance metrics, lack of real-time monitoring.
Environment: Poor working conditions, temperature fluctuations.

By systematically brainstorming within each category, teams can identify potential causes contributing to the problem. Once identified, these causes can be further analyzed and prioritized to determine the most effective solutions.

To find out more about the Fishbone Diagram probelm solving technique, complete Fishbone Diagram Online Training Course.

Benefits of Using the Fishbone Diagram
Structured Approach: The fishbone diagram provides a systematic framework for analyzing complex problems, guiding teams through a structured brainstorming process.

Visual Representation: By visually mapping out potential causes, teams gain a clearer understanding of the interrelationships between different factors influencing the problem.

Cross-Functional Collaboration: The collaborative nature of the fishbone diagram encourages involvement from individuals across various departments, fostering a shared understanding and collective ownership of the problem-solving process.

Root Cause Analysis: By drilling down into the underlying causes of a problem, teams can address issues at their source, leading to more sustainable solutions and long-term improvements.

Mastering the Fishbone Diagram for Manufacturing Success
Incorporating the fishbone diagram into your problem-solving toolkit can enhance your team’s ability to tackle complex challenges with confidence and precision. By leveraging this visual tool to dissect problems, identify root causes, and formulate targeted solutions, manufacturing teams can streamline operations, improve efficiency, and drive continuous improvement across the organization.

Fishbone Diagram Summary:

What is it: The Fishbone Diagram, also known as the Ishikawa diagram or Cause and Effect diagram, is a visual problem-solving tool used to identify and analyze the potential causes of a specific problem or effect.

Purpose: Its primary purpose is to facilitate a structured approach to root cause analysis by visually organizing potential contributing factors into categories, enabling teams to explore relationships and prioritize corrective actions.

Difficulty Level: The Fishbone Diagram technique is relatively straightforward in concept, but effectively using it requires critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration among team members to brainstorm and categorize potential causes.

Types of Manufacturing Problems: The Fishbone Diagram is versatile and can be applied to various manufacturing challenges, including equipment failures, quality defects, production delays, and process inefficiencies.

Number of People: It can involve individuals or cross-functional teams, depending on the complexity of the problem being addressed, with each member contributing insights and expertise to the brainstorming and analysis process.

Supplies Needed: The key requirements include a whiteboard or flipchart, markers, and post-it notes or sticky pads for brainstorming sessions. Additionally, access to relevant data and information pertaining to the problem at hand is essential for conducting a thorough analysis.

By utilizing the Fishbone Diagram technique, manufacturing organizations can systematically identify and address root causes of problems, leading to improved processes, enhanced quality, and greater operational efficiency.

Plan-Do-Check-Act

Deming’s PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycle is the most known, and it refers to problem solving in 4 steps. The concept of PDCA was first developed by Shewhart (1939), at Bell Laboratories, in the US, then introduced in Japan by Dr. Edwards Deming early 1950s. Toyota was among the first manufacturing companies to adopt the concept for process improvement. The main focus of the approach is on preventive problem solving to reduce variation in all parts and to build all products and systems right from the first time based on planning.

Image of Plan Do Check Act (PDCA)

Plan Step: This step should be the biggest one, meaning that project definition, team selection and phenomena description should be done in this phase. Also, it is expected that project planning and timing is defined in this phase. Root cause analysis and solution definition are also done in this step.

Do Step: The “Do” phase means implementation of solutions. In this step, it is intended to implement the action plan identified in the first step. 

Check Step: In this step, the results of the actions implemented in the “Do” step are analyzed. A before-and-after comparison is performed verifying whether there were improvements and if the objectives were achieved. The “Check” step consists of analyzing the results of the changes, determining learning lessons from carried out changes, comparing with setting targets to see whether solutions brought adequate results.

Act Step: In the “Act” step, if changes lead to improvements, they are adopted and applied on a larger scale. Otherwise, they are abandoned.

The process can be iterative and may require several cycles for solving complex problems. In general,the PDCA cycle is a continuous process shown in Figure 3, i.e., it is not an end-to-end process. When you reach the last step of “Act” and the outcomes meet the planned targets, you should start all over again and constantly look for better and continuous improvements.

 PDCA Summary:

What is it: The PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) problem-solving method is a systematic approach for continuous improvement, involving four key stages: planning, implementing, evaluating, and adjusting

Purpose: Its primary purpose is to facilitate iterative problem-solving and process improvement by setting objectives, testing solutions, assessing results, and making adjustments as necessary.

Difficulty Level: While the PDCA method provides a structured framework, effectively implementing each stage requires attention to detail, analytical thinking, and collaboration among team members.

Types of Manufacturing Problems: The PDCA method is versatile and can be applied to various manufacturing challenges, including quality control issues, production inefficiencies, and safety concerns.

Number of People: It can involve individuals or cross-functional teams, depending on the scope and complexity of the problem being addressed, with each member contributing unique insights and expertise.

Supplies Needed: The primary requirements include clear objectives, data collection tools, performance metrics, and communication channels to facilitate collaboration and track progress throughout the PDCA cycle.

By adopting the PDCA problem-solving method, manufacturing organizations can systematically identify and address issues, drive continuous improvement, and enhance overall operational effectiveness.

Eight Disciplines Problem Solving (8D) Tool

The 8D approach originated 1974 by the US Department of Defence, ultimately taking the form of the military standard 1520 Corrective Action and Disposition System for Nonconforming Material.

The Ford Motor Company took this military standard, which was essentially a process for quality management, and expanded on it to include more robust problem solving methods. In 1987, they published their manual, Team Oriented Problem Solving (TOPS), which included their first iteration of the 8D methodology.

It has been widely adopted by many organizations.  It follows an eight disciplines that help teams identify, correct and eliminate recurring issues in manufacturing.

Discipline 1 – Build The Team

Discipline 2 – Describe the Problem

Discipline 3 – Implement a Temporary Fix

Discipline 4 – Eliminate Root Cause

Discipline 5 – Verify Corrective Action

Discipline 6 – Implement Permanent Fix

Discipline 7 – Stop It Happening Again

Discipline 8 – Celebrate Success

One of the main strengths of 8D is its focus on teamwork. The 8D philosophy encourages the idea that teams, as a whole, are more powerful than the sum of the individual qualities of each team member. It’s also an empirical methodology; that is to say that it is a fact based problem solving process.  

8D Summary:

What is it: The Eight Disciplines Problem Solving (8D) tool is a structured problem-solving methodology used to identify, analyze, and resolve complex issues comprehensively.

Purpose: Its primary purpose is to provide a systematic approach for addressing problems, preventing recurrence, and driving continuous improvement across various industries.

Difficulty Level: The 8D method involves eight distinct steps, each requiring thorough analysis and collaboration among team members, making it suitable for addressing challenging and multifaceted issues.

Types of Manufacturing Problems: The 8D tool is particularly effective for resolving quality-related issues, customer complaints, product defects, and process deviations in manufacturing environments.

Number of People: It typically involves cross-functional teams comprising individuals with diverse skills and expertise to ensure a comprehensive and holistic problem-solving approach.

Supplies Needed: The key requirements include problem statement documentation, data collection and analysis tools, brainstorming techniques, and communication channels to facilitate collaboration and information sharing throughout the 8D process.

By employing the Eight Disciplines Problem Solving (8D) tool, manufacturing organizations can systematically address complex problems, enhance product quality, and drive continuous improvement throughout their operations.

A3 Problem Solving Methodology

A3 refers to a European paper size that is roughly equivalent to an American 11-inch by 17-inch tabloid-sized paper. The A3 format is used by Toyota as the template for three different types of reports:

  • Proposals
  • Status
  • Problem solving

It’s main idea is that all projects with problem definition, solution, checking and standardisation can be explained on one A3 sized paper. Otherwise, if you can’t explain them on that paper size it means that you still do not know your process and solution well. By limiting the report to one page, teams are forced to be concise and thoughtful about including only relevant information needed to solve problems. This is usually used for problems which can be solved in maximum one to two weeks. This approach is also good for teaching new employees how to systematically approach to problem solving.

  1. Identify the problem or need.
  2. Understand the current situation/state.
  3. Develop the goal statement – develop the target state.
  4. Perform root cause analysis.
  5. Brainstorm/determine countermeasures.
  6. Create a countermeasures implementation plan.
  7. Check results – confirm the effect.
  8. Update standard work.

These steps follow the Deming Plant-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, with steps 1 through 5 being the ”Plan”, Step 6 being the “Do”, Step 7 being the “Check” and Step 8 being the “Act”.

The process can be iterative and may require several cycles for solving complex problems. In general,the PDCA cycle is a continuous process shown in Figure 3, i.e., it is not an end-to-end process. When you reach the last step of “Act” and the outcomes meet the planned targets, you should start all over again and constantly look for better and continuous improvements.

PDCA Summary:

What is it: The A3 Problem Solving Methodology is a structured approach for problem-solving and continuous improvement, named after the size of the paper typically used to document the process.

Purpose: Its primary purpose is to provide a systematic framework for defining, analyzing, and resolving problems in a concise and visual manner.

Difficulty Level: While the A3 method is relatively simple in concept, effectively implementing it requires critical thinking, collaboration, and disciplined execution.

Types of Manufacturing Problems: The A3 methodology is versatile and can be applied to various manufacturing challenges, including process inefficiencies, quality issues, and safety concerns.

Number of People: It typically involves cross-functional teams or individuals working collaboratively to address the problem at hand, with each member contributing unique perspectives and expertise.

Supplies Needed: The key requirements include an A3-sized paper or digital equivalent for documenting the problem-solving process, along with data collection tools, visual aids, and communication channels to facilitate collaboration and information sharing.

By utilizing the A3 Problem Solving Methodology, manufacturing organizations can streamline problem-solving efforts, enhance decision-making, and drive continuous improvement across their operations.

Kepner-Tregoe

Founded in 1958 by Dr. Charles Kepner and Dr. Benjamin Tregoe, Kepner-Tregoe, Inc. is a global organisation providing consulting and training services around  problem solving, decision making and project execution methodologies. This method has become very popular in IT and technical fields but can be applied to a wide range of problems.

The Kepner-Tregoe (KT) Problem Solving Methodology is a systematic approach designed to identify, analyze, and resolve complex issues in a structured manner. It involves a series of logical steps and analytical tools, requiring critical thinking, data analysis, and collaboration among team members.

The methodology typically consists of the following stages:

Situation Appraisal: This stage involves defining the problem, gathering relevant data, and understanding the context and impact of the issue. It aims to establish a clear understanding of the problem’s scope and severity.

Problem Analysis: In this stage, the team analyzes the root causes of the problem using structured analytical techniques such as cause-and-effect analysis, decision trees, and hypothesis testing. The goal is to identify the underlying factors contributing to the issue.

Decision Analysis: Once the root causes are identified, the team evaluates potential solutions or alternatives using decision analysis tools such as decision trees, risk analysis, and cost-benefit analysis. This stage helps in selecting the most effective and feasible solution.

Potential Problem Analysis: In this final stage, the team anticipates potential obstacles or risks associated with the chosen solution and develops contingency plans to mitigate them. This proactive approach helps in ensuring successful implementation and sustainability of the solution.

The Kepner-Tregoe methodology is adaptable and can be applied to various types of problems in manufacturing settings, including process deviations, quality concerns, and performance optimization. It typically involves cross-functional teams or individuals trained in the KT methodology, working collaboratively to systematically address the problem at hand.

Key requirements for implementing the KT Problem Solving Methodology include problem-solving templates, decision analysis tools, and structured problem-solving processes to guide teams through the problem-solving journey. Overall, the methodology provides a rational framework for decision-making and problem-solving, enabling organizations to address challenges effectively and efficiently.

Kepner-Tregoe Summary:

What is it: The Kepner-Tregoe (KT) methodology is a systematic problem-solving approach designed to identify, analyze, and resolve complex issues in a structured manner.

Purpose: Its primary purpose is to provide a rational framework for decision-making and problem-solving, enabling organizations to address challenges effectively and efficiently.

Difficulty Level: The KT method involves a series of logical steps and analytical tools, requiring critical thinking, data analysis, and collaboration among team members.

Types of Manufacturing Problems: The KT methodology is adaptable and can be applied to various manufacturing issues, including process deviations, quality concerns, and performance optimization.

Number of People: It typically involves cross-functional teams or individuals trained in the KT methodology, working together to systematically address the problem at hand.

Supplies Needed: The key requirements include problem-solving templates, decision analysis tools, and structured problem-solving processes to guide teams through the problem-solving journey.

Six Sigma and it's Problem Solving Tool

DMAIC approach is actually PDCA given in 5 steps used by, but not limited only to Lean Six Sigma. It is usually used for bigger amount of statistical data and requires more time to solve meaning it is mostly used for medium and large scale problems.

Six Sigma (6σ) is a set of techniques and tools for process improvement. It was introduced by American engineer Bill Smith while working at Motorola in 1986. The purpose of Six Sigma is to bring about improved business and quality performance and to deliver improved profit by addressing serious business issues that may have existed for a long time. The driving force behind the approach is for organizations to be competitive and to eliminate errors and waste.

A six sigma process is one in which 99.99966% of all opportunities to produce some feature of a part are statistically expected to be free of defects. It could also be viewed as a break through strategy. That significantly improve customer satisfaction and shareholder value by reducing variability in every aspect of business.

How Six Sigma Problem Solving Is Different

Actually it is really not so different from how people normally go about solving day-to-day problems, except in Six Sigma, nobody knows what is really causing the problem at the beginning of the project. And because all attempts to solve the problem in the past have failed, largely because conventional wisdom and gut theories were wrong about the cause of that problem, people conclude that the problem cannot be solved. These types of problems are really the best candidates for Six Sigma.

A Six Sigma project is usually executed by the DMAIC process. Each phase of the methodology should be followed in the sequence define, measure, analyse, improve and control. However, once data have been gathered and analysed the project should be reviewed and, if necessary, re-defined, re-measured and re-analysed. The first three phases should be repeated until the project definition agrees with the information derived from the data. The methodology should only proceed to the final two phases once the project definition is stable. 

Six Sigma DMAIC problem solving methodology

The Six Sigma DMAIC methodology differs from conventional problem solving in one significant way. There is a requirement for proof of cause and effect before improvement action is taken. Proof is required because resources for improvement actions are limited in most organizations. Those limits preclude being able to implement improvement actions based on 100 hunches hoping that one hits the mark. Thus, discovering root causes is at the core of the methodology.

Define Phase

The outcome of this phase is a project charter that lists what is observed to be wrong. The project charter should state the description of the problem and include data about the size of the problem and its financial impact on profit. The scope of the project, together with the objectives that should be realized at the end of the project, should be clearly defined in both operational (including safety matters if appropriate) and financial terms.

The Measure Phase

The purpose of the measure phase is to develop a data collection plan, to collect the data, to evaluate the data, and to create a baseline of recent process performance. The “measure” phase is the phase where all the data about the variables that are believed to influence the problem should be collected. Before starting to collect data, however, an assessment should be made of the efficacy of the measurement  processes that the project will depend on. All measurement systems to be used should be capable of providing data to the required level of accuracy and repeatability. This includes measurement processes that result in discrete “attribute” type data. If there is any doubt about the quality of the data, any statistical analysis that is subsequently undertaken might be invalid.

Analyse Phase

The purpose of the analyse phase is to identify the gaps between baseline performance and targets, to understand the root sources of variation, and to prioritize improvement opportunities.

Improve Phase

The purpose of this phase is to establish a robust improvement to the process. The activities to be considered range from the practical, such as mistake-proofing certain operations, to using optimization techniques and making processes robust against noise variables though DOEs, as appropriate. During this phase, identify any “road blocks” that will prevent the selected solution from being implemented, and overcome them. Ways to overcome any potential “road blocks” should be identified before the process modification is implemented.

Control Phase

The purpose of this phase is to establish a robust improvement to the process. The activities to be considered range from the practical, such as mistake-proofing certain operations, to using optimization techniques and making processes robust against noise variables though DOEs, as appropriate. During this phase, identify any “road blocks” that will prevent the selected solution from being implemented, and overcome them. Ways to overcome any potential “road blocks” should be identified before the process modification is implemented.

DMAIC Summary:

What is it: The DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology is a structured problem-solving approach used in Six Sigma to improve processes by reducing defects and variations.

Purpose: Its primary purpose is to systematically identify process inefficiencies, analyze root causes, implement improvements, and establish controls to sustain improvements over time.

Difficulty Level: The DMAIC method involves a series of clearly defined steps and statistical tools, requiring analytical skills, data analysis capabilities, and collaboration among team members.

Types of Manufacturing Problems: DMAIC is particularly effective for addressing process-related issues such as defects, variations, cycle time reduction, and customer satisfaction improvement.

Number of People: It typically involves cross-functional teams or individuals trained in Six Sigma methodologies, working collaboratively to address process improvement initiatives.

Supplies Needed: The key requirements include project charters, process maps, data collection tools, statistical software, and project management tools to guide teams through each phase of the DMAIC cycle.

By applying the DMAIC methodology, manufacturing organizations can systematically improve processes, reduce defects, enhance quality, and drive continuous improvement in their operations.

To learn differnt problem solving techniques, complete our Problem Solving toolkit Online Training Course.

Conclusion

In the ever-evolving landscape of manufacturing, the ability to swiftly and effectively address challenges is paramount to success. Throughout this exploration of eight essential problem-solving techniques, we’ve uncovered a diverse toolkit designed to equip manufacturing teams with the skills and methodologies necessary to tackle the complexities of their industry.

From the systematic approach of Six Sigma’s DMAIC method to the collaborative nature of Kepner-Tregoe, each technique offers a unique lens through which to analyze and resolve issues. As manufacturing organizations continue to adapt and innovate, the mastery of these problem-solving techniques will serve as a compass, guiding teams towards operational excellence and sustainable growth.

By fostering a culture of continuous improvement and investing in the development of problem-solving skills, manufacturing teams can navigate the challenges of today while paving the way for a more efficient and resilient future.

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    Dr. Fiona Masterson

    Fiona is the Managing Director and founder of The Learning Reservoir. Fiona has over 20+ years of experience in the Life Sciences, Food and Drink industries and third level education. Her Doctorate focused on the regulation of drug/device combinations products in the US and European Union. She has also published peer review publication on combination products.