When faced with a situation, whether it be a problem or a decision, we typically need the right answer, and quickly! There are many tools, techniques and processes that are at our disposal, such as Six Sigma, but many of these take time.

All too often when a quick solution is needed we either abbreviate the rational choice or circumvent it altogether by falling back on our thinking biases. We all have preconceived ideas and bias created from earlier situations. At times these fallback positions that have helped form our decision-making capabilities have worked out and may have seemed brilliant at the time, but in many situations they didn’t work out well. The result may have created other problems since jumping to conclusions often compounds problems instead of solving them.

One of the more important criteria for better decision-making and problem solving is the need to clearly define the situation. As simple as this may sound, it is frequently ignored or simply poorly done—often due to the urgency of the situation.

Thankfully, decision-making is a skill that can be learned and improved.

One such approach that I learned many years ago and continued to use it throughout my career is referred to as Kepner-Tregoe, or Problem Solving & Decision Making. Its foundation is the KT Matrix that was developed in the late 1950’s by Drs. Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe. The matrix provides an efficient, systematic framework for gathering, organizing, and evaluating information.

While it may sound involved and complex it really is quite simple. The KT approach is based on the premise that we need to make the best possible choice, not to make the perfect choice. Decision makers must accept the premise that there is some risk involved, but that’s the case with other tools and techniques as well. With the KT approach, however, the process helps evaluate and mitigate the risks with the decision.

The KT approach uses an “is/is not” matrix for specifying a problem which has appeared in a variety of contexts. For instance, quality practitioners have used KT for root cause analysis, project initiation, stratification of data, and identification of causes of a situation or event, just to name a few applications.

This simple yet powerful tool enables the user to clearly define the problem, decision, or situation being addressed. The matrix structure varies with the intended use. The “is/is not” matrix is very helpful in curbing scope creep in a project. When tackling a project, it is as critical to know what will be included as well as what will not.

Early in my career I was asked to assume a facilitation role for a long-standing problem that adversely affected multiple manufacturing and assembly & test facilities. Team members from each affected facility included product engineers, test engineers, manufacturing engineers, along with production and quality specialists.

An intimidating assignment, but one thing was clear. A different approach was needed because several tools/techniques had previously been used without success. The frustrated team was ready for a new methodology and quickly accepted the Problem Solving & Decision Making (KT) approach.

The team soon realized the KT approach leverages everyone’s combined knowledge, experience, intuition, and judgment. The type of detailed problem and risk analysis uses, coupled with the KT matrix, helped the team make an unbiased decision. The structure of the KT approach limited their conscious and unconscious biases which resulted in a faster and better solution to the problem.

The KT approach can also be used in non-manufacturing situations. A less common, but nonetheless critical application, is in the strategic planning process. Defining what will be included in the resulting organizational strategic plans and what will not be included helps prevent the overzealous adoption of strategies and plans that the organization is ill-equipped to implement.

KT is a mature process with decades of proven capabilities, but from discussions with a wide spectrum of the new quality professionals there seems to be, sadly, a lack of understanding about this effective approach. The approach is well respected and used by many of the world’s top organizations. NASA used KT to troubleshoot the critical situation that occurred with Apollo 13, and thereby saved the mission and the lives of the astronauts!

Even without a lot of time available, using KT can result in the most efficient problem solutions. Armed with tools like the 5 Whys and Ishikawa diagramming, a team leader can use KT to capture the combined experience and knowledge of the team to achieve amazing results.

I’ve continued to use the KT matrix by asking simple questions. What is the problem? What is not the problem? Where is the problem found? Where is the problem not found?, etc. This simple technique can be very valuable. If it’s not in your quality toolbox, what’s stopping you? It’s easy to learn and could just help you quickly isolate and solve your next problem.