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The Objective of Problem-Solving is Not Solving the Problem

The ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage” – Arie de Geus


One of the misconceptions that interferes with an organization’s transformation toward lean thinking deals with the objective of problem-solving. People tend to focus problem-solving activities mostly on the business result, or solving the problem, and ignore whether or not any learning occurred while doing the exercise.  What many fail to understand is, when the focus of problem-solving is results, very little learning takes place, but when the focus is learning, more significant and sustainable results will follow.

It is strange to think that the main objective of problem-solving is not solving the problem, but the more one understands organizations and behavior, the clearer it becomes that sustainable improvement can only occur through continual team learning. When it is obvious that the only concern of leaders in a problem-solving effort is results, people will respond by showing positive results whether or not they are real or sustainable. Problem-solving will become nothing more than an exercise to get to the countermeasure as quickly as possible.

The Benefits of Learning

Some of the benefits of emphasizing learning during problem-solving include:

Improved understanding of systems and processes When done correctly, problem-solving requires looking at the issue from a number of perspectives to better understand how to approach it. It also involves understanding and proving the connections between potential causes and effects and, although it takes time to do this, it leads to increased understanding of the processes and systems that contributed to the issue. This learning leads to better problem-solving and greater improvements in the future – something that cannot occur without learning.

Improved understanding of the problem-solving process The more a team solves problems, the better everyone involved learns the process.  Rather than merely following the steps in a process, people start to learn why the steps are important, how they relate to the quality of the output, and where changes can be made to make the process better and faster.  When the focus is on getting to the countermeasure, the only learning that takes place is how to make an A3 look good. No useful learning will occur as people jump to the countermeasure and backfill the A3 to make it appear that the process was followed.

Learning stays with the team rather than with a single person The A3 (or whatever document is used in the process) from formal problem-solving is captured and maintained as a record of how the problem was defined, broken down, how the root cause was determined, the countermeasures selected, and the results.  In this way, when one or more people leave the team, the learning is maintained through the records and the countermeasures captured in standards related to the process. Also, the increased knowledge and understanding of the process throughout the team that was gained as part of the effort will not go away when one or two people leave.

Motivation increases as people learn and grow For most people, learning and contributing to improvement makes the work they do more interesting. When learning is the focus of problem-solving, the more energized people become and the more interested they are in driving improvements into the work they do.

Leaders Must Learn Also

Emphasizing learning rather than results takes patience and a belief that it will eventually lead to far greater and sustainable results.  Without this transformation, people will see that results are all that matters and respond accordingly. Rather than generate real results based on scientific analysis and concrete actions, however, they will likely be achieved quickly and be superficial and unsustainable. Problems will become hidden and not given the attention they require.

About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


3 thoughts on “The Objective of Problem-Solving is Not Solving the Problem

  1. Provocative and refreshing article.

    I’ve had experience trying to explain the ‘learning’ aspect of solving problems to various folks– and it is a tough sell. A lot of it stems from the mindset “we are paid to get results, not learn.”

    The trick is, and I don’t have one, getting learning to be an actual result.

    We shouldn’t be surprised: everything is seen as a project instead of an experiment; a solution instead of a countermeasure.

    Have you had any experience with organizations that explicitly made learning part of problem solving? And if so, can you share anything?


    Posted by Kyle | November 28, 2017, 4:20 pm
    • Hi Kyle – Good questions. I have seen it work while at a previous company in which I was the plant manager and drove this with the team through continual emphasis with the team and through my own behavior during A3 report-outs. I’ve also developed an A3 coaching question sheet for leaders to follow during report-outs. It’s a series of questions for each section of the form that guide those attending a report-outs. The questions are focused on how well the problem-solving process was followed that includes “what did you learn that you didn’t know when you started the process” in two sections (i.e., breaking down the problem and determining the root cause). Attendees are told not to stray from the questions because anything missed should come out if the presenter is questioned about the process (they should actually do a self evaluation afterwards to understand how well they stuck to the questions). Does this make sense?


      Posted by Gregg Stocker | November 29, 2017, 8:58 am
  2. Yeah it sounds like a ‘lessons learned’ or what I call ‘mythbusting’. This would dove tail with your suggested coaching question “What did you learn that you didn’t know when you started the process.” This could either be a technical fact or something related to the A3 process.

    Ensuring this is a core discipline in reviewing an A3 is a light bulb.



    Posted by Kyle | November 29, 2017, 10:00 am

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