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Problem solving: When Honesty is the best policy


What happens when a management system to identify the causes of problems fails?

Over Christmas, shoppers in Japan had an unexpected experience. Several hundred customers who ordered the “strawberry frill shortcake” later complained the cake had arrived damaged.


In response to complaints, the Department Store issued the following statement:


“We sincerely apologise to our many customers for the disappointment caused by the collapse of the frozen Christmas cake we sold, and for the concern this caused to many customers.

It is impossible to determine to cause of the problem.

The fact that we could not establish a management system to identify the cause of this incident was also a problem for us.

We will work to prevent a recurrence.”


Sound vaguely familiar? It seems that they have an idea about what the next steps should be but struggled to find what was the cause of the problem.

That’s a common experience.

At least they were honest about it!

We know that the process for dealing with a problem in quality is:

  • Define the problem
  • Collect the data
  • Identify the possible causes
  • Identify the root cause
  • Implement solutions

Seems simple, but we know that like the strawberry frill shortcake, looks can be deceiving.

Let’s look at some of the barriers to not finding the cause of a problem.


What’s the problem?

There’s an art to defining the problem. Developing a problem statement that people agree on can be a fraught process.

One solution is to get everyone to express what they see as the problem in their own words. You could use brainstorming to help with this.


Not enough information

It’s easy to feel like there is not enough information to make a call on what has happened. Especially if you are the indecisive type.

Perhaps, the problem is not that there is not enough information but that there is too much data to see what’s important. You can’t see the wood for the trees!

Working with someone who has keen attention to detail and who can sort the relevant from the irrelevant is one of the secrets here. That person might not be in the problem investigation team, and they might not even be in a relevant department. But they do exist. Bring them into the team!


Aha! I’ve found the root cause!


It’s so easy to skip over the third step in the quality problem-solving process and go straight to zeroing in on just one “root cause”.

Many problems are wicked or complex and will have multiple causes.

That can lead us to another underlying barrier to good problem-solving – not having enough time.

In the third step of the process, it’s important to allow your team time to explore what has contributed to the problem, and to think about whether the cause could be internal or external. That approach can lead to identifying multiple causes. While these might not have directly contributed to the problem under study, they provide great opportunities for improvement projects in the future.


If I only had the nerve

In The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion tells us that courage is the secret to greatness.

“Courage! What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage! What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage!”


It’s also the secret to a great root cause analysis.

With courage, we can work through that uncomfortable feeling when we get to a cause that could present us with one of those “career-limiting moves”. Causes like not providing sufficient remuneration for a position to secure someone with the right competencies. Or many other decisions made by “management” if you’re not at that level in the organisation. That’s where a brave champion in management can help too.


It’s too hard to implement the solution


Barriers to implementing a solution can come from resistance to change, inadequate resources, poor communication, and fear of failure.

To tackle these barriers, you need the right culture and sometimes some creativity.

If it is a problem of inadequate resources, identify the resources you need to successfully implement the problem, then think about the different ways to get those resources. It might mean you have to collaborate with a partner or explore the skill set of people within your organisation honestly without pigeon-holing them because of the department they work in.

That skill in interpretive dance might mean that your colleague can quickly understand emotion and express it to others clearly to help people overcome the fear of failure.


This all takes honesty. To yourself, your people, your customers, and other stakeholders.


That’s why honesty is the best policy.


Need some help keeping things honest? That’s what we’re here for!

If any of this has hit a nerve, we have solutions with mentoring, training, and getting in and working with you to work better and smarter.

Simply get in touch with Maree at 0411 540 709, or email us at maree@masmanagementsystems.com.au. We’ll give you an honest assessment of what we could do to help.


Remember, you don’t have to do this alone!

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