If you ask the typical manager to describe his or her biggest problem in today’s workplace, the response will probably include one or more of the following:
- We spend all our time in meetings trying to resolve problems.
- We are constantly fighting problems and that doesn’t leave us time to do our real jobs, such as planning or leading.
- As soon as we “put out one fire” another pops up.
- We’ve got more problems than we can handle, and it bogs us down.
The actual words may vary, but the message is the same. The workplace can be so burdened with problems that managers and others spend much of their time trying to fix them and nothing gets done right. Leadership suffers—there is just no time to lead. Performance suffers, from the standpoint of both the individual and the organization. Quality of product or service deteriorates. Competitiveness is negatively impacted. Failure of the organization becomes a real probability, especially if its competitors have turned to total quality and its philosophy for solving problems—once and for all. Why is it that with all the effort we put into it, consuming so much time in the process, we cannot solve our problems and get on with the jobs we are paid to do? The answer is simply that most of our problem solving is anything but that.
Consider this scenario from the authors’ past. One night while driving home from a meeting, our Chrysler’s engine suddenly quit. It would start when the key was turned but immediately quit when the key was released. The car’s wiring diagram showed a resistor (an electrical component) that was switched into the engine’s running circuit only after the engine was started. We suspected it might be the problem. Sure enough, by putting a plain piece of wire between the two terminals of the resistor, effectively replacing the resistor with the wire having no resistance, the engine ran fine, and we got home with no further difficulty. Was the problem solved? Of course not. On the way to work the next morning, the ignition coil, normally protected by the resistor but now subjected to too much electrical current by our piece of wire, burned up. That necessitated replacing not only the resistor but also the ignition coil, which cost six times as much as the resistor. After replacing the two components, everything was once again in working order. But was the problem solved? At this point, most people would say so.
This is the level of problem solving in many (if not most) organizations. When something breaks, fix it or replace it. Job done, problem solved. The most we should claim for this kind of problem solving is that we are back where we started (i.e., before the problem came up). But remember, if it happened once, it can happen again.
The Chrysler’s resistor failed twice more while we owned the car. Over the next 25 years, we owned two more Chrysler vehicles, both of which also had multiple failures of the same resistor. Clearly, replacing the resistor did not solve the problem. For the problem to be truly solved so that the failure rate of that part would be sufficiently reduced so as to be satisfactory would have required Chrysler to gather all the electrical, physical, and reliability data relating to the resistor, and the circuit it operated in, and then redesign the circuit or make use of a more robust resistor or some other change, as the data required. Had that been done, we could justifiably call it a solved problem. We could also call such a solution a product improvement because the probability of failure would be greatly reduced.
The point is that in total quality jargon, a problem is solved only when its recurrence has become impossible or significantly less probable. That will always be the objective of total quality problem solving. Any problem that is merely fixed by restoring the situation to what it was before the problem was manifested will return again. That is why managers spend so much time with problem issues. The problems are not being solved—just put into a recycle loop. In those organizations that have adopted total quality, problems are solved once and for all. The same problems do not return time and time again. That means that there will be fewer problems tomorrow than there were today, fewer next month than this month, fewer next year than this year. Managers will have more time to manage, leaders to lead. When problem solutions lead to process or products or services improvement,
- product or service quality improves,
- costs decrease (through less waste and warranty action),
- customer satisfaction improves,
- competitiveness improves, and
- the probability for success improves.
Clearly, all of these outcomes are desirable. They are all achievable by applying the total quality principles to problem solving.
Source: Goetsch David L., Davis Stanley B. (2016), Quality Management for organizational excellence introduction to total Quality, Pearson; 8th edition.