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The Trouble With Problem Solving in Manufacturing

6/25/17 6:08 PM


The manufacturing problem solving traps

I've always remembered three lessons I learned trying to solve problems at my manufacturing job back in the 80's. I was a Supervisor at a manufacturing plant and I took over two departments that were in desperate need of leadership.

(It’s quite possible they were still in desperate need of leadership after I took them over.) I quickly assessed the situation, figured out what was wrong, and developed a plan to solve the issues. Due to the insightfulness I gained in college, of course I realized it wouldn't happen overnight. I wasn't going to make that mistake! I figured a month would be plenty of time.

After a month, here is what I learned:

  • Many of the "issues" I needed to fix were actually creative solutions to situations I didn't fully understand.
  • I needed to fully understand the current process. Until I did that, the real problems didn't emerge.
  • Real, lasting change takes much longer than I anticipated.

Those lessons are as true today as they were back then; they still guide me. Sometimes they guide me the wrong way though. I may put off solving an issue because 30 years later, I do understand a real solution is probably not a simple fix.  On the surface, the issue and solution may seem simple, but as you dive deeper into it, the entire scope reveals itself. Seriously, if the fix was easy, someone would have fixed it long before I came across the issue. My desire to fix things can be dampened by my experience of knowing there is more to it than meets the eye. Sometimes living with the issue is more desirable than expending the energy to figure out a solution.

The manufacturing problem solving solutions

I think we all fall into this trap. Finding the balance between blindly charging forward and analyzing the situation endlessly is something we all face. The danger of the first extreme is doing something stupid; the danger of the second extreme is doing nothing at all. What I have seem over the years isn't so much the first extreme, it's the second - doing nothing.

How can you fight this natural tendency? Here are some ideas:

  • Take that proactive step. Acknowledge there is an issue and you don't have a solution. If you don’t acknowledge the problem, you feel there is no problem. If there is no problem, there is no need for a solution. Nothing will change.
  • Talk to people who do what you do or do things similar to you. Talk to people that may not do what you do, but they experience a similar problem. Really, just talk to people. Conferences are a great setting for this.
  • Hire experts. It’s OK if your organization doesn’t have the expertise to solve the problem. Acknowledge it and bring in a hired gun. An expert can help you focus on real solutions and prevent you from wasting time on “solution” that sounds good to non-experts (you), but are actually not effective.
  • Stay open to new ideas. Change is hard; nothing I can say will make it easier. Be comforted in knowing it’s hard for everyone. The key here is to make sure the idea of change doesn’t blind you to a potentially good solution.

I hope this helps you with the trouble of solving your manufacturing issues. If you'd like to discuss, I'm here to help.

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Jack Shannon

Written by Jack Shannon

Jack is the President of Visual South and has been working with ERP since 1996 when he bought it in his role as a Plant Manager. Since 1998 he has worked for Visual South with roles in consulting, sales and executive management.