DR. CUMMINGS: Six steps for problem solving

April 20, 2014 

Got a problem? An unreasonable boss? An unworkable marriage? Something you just can’t solve? NASA struggled with O-rings. Remember that? President Obama had information technology problems. What problem are you kicking around in your head, wishing it would go away? Here’s a system you might want to try. It’s called Six Steps. Here’s how it works:

Step one: Define the problem. This is not as easy as it sounds. Most of us talk “around the problem” and never really define it. We say things like “my husband doesn’t listen” when the real problem is “my husband isn’t interested” and that’s why he doesn’t listen. Albert Einstein used to say that defining the problem was 85 percent of the solution. When I have a big problem, I always write it down and rewrite it again and again until I’m sure.

The Obama administration wishes they had done this before they rolled out Obamacare.

Step two: Measure the importance. Just how important is this problem? On a scale of 1 to 10, is it worth your time and effort? Some things bother us like ants at a picnic, and they need to be brushed aside. My wife has a phrase for this: “Get over it.” However, if it’s a big problem, something that will make a difference in your life, move quickly to step three.

Step three: Dig for the root cause. Remember the true story of the grounds crew at the Jefferson Monument in Washington, D.C.? They asked: “Why is the plaster falling off the head of Jefferson?” and the answer was “the maintenance crew is cleaning off the bird droppings with an acid compound.” That was a cause, but it wasn’t the root cause.

Turns out that the birds came because they ate the spiders.

The spiders were there because every morning the head of Jefferson was covered with tiny mites. The mites appeared because the ground crew turned on the hot night lights at 3 p.m. at the end of their shift and heated up the statue to just the right temperature for mites. Finally, the root of the problem.

Step four: Name all the solutions. Even when you feel you’ve found the root cause, it’s always wise to name a few solutions. For example, we could pay for another shift of grounds crew people (that’s called the government solution) or we could put a timer on the hot night lights and have them come on at 8 p.m. Or, I suppose, we could shoot the birds.

Step five: Try it. When I worked with Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the famous quality guru, he used to say: PDCA. “Plan, do, check, act.” After you plan out your solution and then try it, check to see if it really works. If it works the way you planned it, continue it. If it doesn’t work, go back to another solution and keep trying until you get it.

Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But how many of us give up after the first try?

Step six: Measure the result. This is the most important step of all and is one that is often overlooked or misrepresented. For example, let’s go back to the Obamacare rollout problem that all of us followed for four months on TV. Last week at the “going away party” for Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, the president said: “We had a problem, but we solved it. We’ve now enrolled 7.1 million uninsured Americans.”

He’s absolutely correct if:

• They were all previously uninsured.

• They all paid their premiums.

• They all enrolled in Obamacare, not Medicaid.

Measuring your results -- it’s all mathematics. Make sure what you say adds up.

Click on Dr. C Video: www.youtu.be/0niUTuLWEQY.

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