For anyone who’s worked in product or service industries, it’s a safe bet that you’ve encountered situations in which problems, once thought to be resolved, resurfaced later.

There are important things to remember about problems: they happen all the time; they have primarily one root cause; systems, not people, are to blame; problems are opportunities to improve. Problems provide us with information about what needs to be corrected so that the organization can improve their profitability. With this in mind, we can almost begin to welcome problems.

If the primary (root) cause can be isolated and resolved properly, three things can be accomplished. First, resources which have been previously wasted in resolving the issue can be eliminated which saves significant expense. Second, sustainable improvement in the organization is created. Third, an atmosphere of improvement begins to be a way of life.

 Essentially, any formal methodology can be effective if the process is rigorously followed. In this column we won’t recommend a specific process, but offer suggestions of more fundamental considerations in order for organizations to succeed. These are not in any particular order.

Don’t focus on the symptoms. Organizations make the mistake of reacting to the symptoms. It’s easy to focus on the most visible symptoms. However, it’s not enough for managers to scream “We need better quality!” to resolve nonconformance issues. If it were that simple, it would have been solved long before. We must peel away the layers to get to the core root cause. One tool that can be helpful is the 5-Whys technique. Ask “Why?” and drill down until the core root cause is identified. There can be one, multiple, or interrelated root causes to any particular issue.

Containment isn’t resolution. As soon as a problem surfaces, it should be contained. Everyone should be alerted. Those affected should work together to identify a short-term strategy for making sure the problem doesn’t escape the immediate area while permanent corrective actions are developed. All too often, this temporary action can remain in place far too long while other issues are addressed. Instead, be certain to use the containment action to prevent problems from becoming tragedies, but don’t allow containment to remain in place without implementing permanent corrective action.

Resolve the root cause. Root causes must be resolved to prevent the issue(s) from recurring. If we only turn off one root cause of a problem that has multiple causes, the problem will resurface. Dr. Joseph M. Juran, who many experts refer to as the greatest quality guru of the 20th century, referred to this as a chronic problem. Confusing the issue, at times, is when the problem recurs it can change slightly so that it’s considered a new or different problem. When a diligent effort has been made to conduct a thorough root cause analysis (RCA), all the root causes should be recorded on a cause and effect diagram. Next, implement actions to turn off each one to ensure the problem never resurfaces.

Assess the action. When a problem has been addressed and considered resolved, there should be oversight scheduled. Upon implementation, there should be periodic assessment of the resolution to ensure the issue has been truly fixed. A post-mortem audit should also be conducted to understand why the things that functioned properly were effective and why failures were ineffective. Many organizations aren’t consistent with this step and overlook it. Don’t make that same mistake. This needs to done with trained personnel who will focus on the process.

Don’t be quick to readjust. There is a tendency of management driving problem-solving activity to call for immediate adjustments when it is learned that, after a process has been changed to solve a problem, the issue resurfaces. It’s not unusual that the cycle-time to incorporate solutions is longer than the frequency of emergence. In other words, while the problem was being solved with a process change, other problems occurred that escaped the containment strategy—particularly if all root causes were not yet understood. It has happened many times, so it is imperative to identify which symptoms occurred because of failed containment and which occurred because the new process is still defective. It is essential to remain focused on the root cause of the issue for final resolution.

In summary, it is less important exactly which problem-solving process is adopted as long as a few fundamental concepts are maintained. It’s possible to create an atmosphere that’s essential to doing a great, or at least credible, job of problem-solving—every time!