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Root-cause problem solving in the Ops 4.0 era

Root-cause problem solving remains a crucial part of the continuous-improvement process. Today’s technologies make it even easier—and more powerful.
Markus Hammer

Has a passion for capability building with deep expertise in lean and green operations and the use of advanced analytics in operations; experienced in successful large-scale operations-transformation programs

Wouter Michiels

Wouter Michiels, a consultant based in the Brussels Office, has more than 10 years’ experience in petrochemical manufacturing, engineering, and supply chains.

To improve, organizations must consistently seek out and solve their problems—an insight that underpins lean management’s emphasis on root-cause problem solving (RCPS). Indeed, companies that have used RCPS to build a problem-solving culture that lasts are able to avoid continuous firefighting by effectively preventing fires from starting.

But RCPS takes discipline and patience, which some leaders resist: a manager may be reluctant to use this model if she’s convinced that she has already identified an “operational solution.” Nevertheless, persuading her to join her team on a problem-solving journey can help uncover a more effective and sustainable set of solutions—most importantly by including the people who know the problem best: shop-floor employees. Their perspective often shows that the initial idea would not have addressed the problem’s real causes, and would have met with a lot of resistance from the people charged with implementation.

Ops 4.0 technologies are making it easier to overcome that resistance and invigorate root-cause problem solving performance. What follows is a non-exhaustive overview of how different technologies (italicized) could be applied in each of the five RCPS elements (exhibit).

Root-cause problem solving consists of five elements.
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1. Identifying and defining the problem

The rise of advanced analytics and business-intelligence applications allows companies can detect many more problems than in the past, and in a more effective way—so long as they have sufficient internal support to interpret the output. Examples include fraud detection in banking and insurance, as well as deviations from normal operating conditions of equipment in manufacturing plants. For the latter, the increased availability of high-frequency, high-precision sensors, together with the rise of the Internet of Things provides companies with larger data sets from which to identify problems.

2. Assessing root cause(s)

Once the problem is defined, root causes are often identified via the five-why methodology. Instead of using the traditional colored sticky notes to facilitate this exercise, companies can now use interactive whiteboards incorporating speech-to-text or handwriting-to-text algorithms, together with high-quality touch commands. Moreover, the whiteboards can link to data warehouses, thereby enabling self-service analytics or even machine-learning algorithms for performing the analyses required in confirming or rejecting potential root causes.

3. Designing solutions

Augmented- and virtual-reality applications can help designers’ creation process become even more productive. Faster iterations between the drawing board and a more real-life representation shorten lead times toward final design. Rapid prototyping and 3D printing can accelerate this process even further by bringing intermediate versions of the solution to life.

4. Testing solutions

Once a solution has been designed, it is crucial to test its efficiency and effectiveness. The increase in computing power enables companies to perform extensive computational simulations. Using digital twins helps organizations create virtual mirrors of their operations, allowing them to test ideas more realistically before implementation.

5. Sustaining, sharing, and continuously improving

The digital communication and collaboration platforms that are now in widespread use can often be linked with interactive tools such as digital whiteboards, minimizing the time teams spend on documentation so they can instead focus on the creative parts of problem solving. Having past records of problem-solving sheets available at only one touch avoids solving the same problem all over again.

The above list shows how the ancient art of root-cause problem solving can take shape in today’s environment. The question for most organizations is how to start, especially with technologies that can sound like science fiction. A learning center designed to replicate an actual, digitally enabled working environment can provide the first step, helping people experience the impact these technologies can achieve in a practical and realistic setting.

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