Five Questions to Reflect on Both Process and Results of Problem Solving

When an organization’s culture is results-driven it is easy for people to receive the signal that it is okay to get results at any cost. This can lead to hiding poor results or problems. It can lead to false or shallow problem solving in which short-term containment efforts are disguised as success. Perhaps most damaging, potential benefits from sincere and thorough problem solving efforts are never achieved when we become satisfied with results that come from chance or a lucky change in conditions. Delivering good results repeatedly relies on having a good process.

To review, there are eight steps, more properly stages of activity with multiple steps, in Lean problem solving, a.k.a. Toyota Business Practice (TBP). They are

  1. Clarify the problem
  2. Breakdown the problem
  3. Set a target
  4. Analyze the root cause
  5. Develop countermeasures
  6. See countermeasures through
  7. Evaluate both results and process
  8. Standardize successful processes

The seventh step of lean problem solving is to reflect on both the process and results. It is the “check” step in the PDCA cycle, or the “study” step in PDSA, if you prefer.

It is important to be clear what we mean by “results” in this context. This English word means both “positive outcome” as in “she is a real pro and always gets results for us” but also simply “a consequence or effect” of some action. Results can be good, bad or indifferent. Only human opinion assigns them this value. When we evaluate both process and results in the late phases of problem solving, we do so for the latter sense of the word.

In other words, we must study both good outcomes and bad outcomes. We study the bad outcomes so that we can avoid failing for the same reason in the future. We study the good outcomes so that we can standardize the good practices that lead to good results. Often this is the extent of the explanation of this seventh phase of problem solving. This important activity deserves a deeper look. Here are five questions to ask when evaluating both the process and on the positive outcomes of our problem solving efforts.

1. Customer first. How well did our good results satisfy the customer? Problem solving can quickly become shallow, misguided, or solution-driven when we fail to keep the customer at the center of our attention. As one improvement cycle nears its end and prepares to start again, it is critical to check in with the customer.

2. Sense of satisfaction. How satisfied are the people involved in problem solving with our results? This is a trick question. Of course, we want people to find a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in their work. However, we also want people to have a healthy sense of dissatisfaction, that we can do better, that there is still work left undone. This should create a healthy tension and motivation, not disappointment or stress.

3. Individual growth. How did problem solving contribute to your individual growth and development? What did you learn about the specific process, product, service or technology? About the customer? About problem solving? About yourself?

4. Organizational growth. How does solving this problem contribute to the growth and development of the organization? Even when a problem solving effort is the type that just gets us “back to standard” there are often opportunities to strengthening relationships with customers, within the organization, and apply insights and lessons to improvement of other processes.

5. Was it luck? How sure are we that the good result was not due to chance? If you hear, “The process of getting there was rough, but it turned out all right in the end,” there is a risk that some or all of the positive result was due to fortunate circumstances. It is important to be aware of these factors so that we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that our good outcomes were the result of good processes.

Evaluating the process and results of problem solving is as much art as science. The science comes from asking a standard set of questions. The art comes from listening with attention, empathy, humility and respect for the individual.

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