Process-Based Approach to Problem Solving

Peter Fritsche

VP, Global Operations and Service at ACIST Medical

Learning Objectives

Most companies face many of the same challenges: human diversities, low employee engagement, ever-increasing customer expectations, relentless business pressures and unprecedented advances in technology. Peter will discuss how most companies approach problem solving and the unfortunate outcomes focusing on people followed by a process-based methodology that will deliver better results.

Key Takeaways:

  • The need to approach problems differently

  • Why most companies arrive at outcomes focusing on people

  • A process-based methodology for delivering better results

"What this all leads to is a much more open discussion. Tell me more. What's going on? "

Peter Fritsche

VP, Global Operations and Service at ACIST Medical


Over the next short while, I will share a process based approach to problem solving, and how using this approach will deliver better results. To help convey this information, I’ve incorporated some specific examples and methodologies that I hope you find useful and a bit entertaining.

My experience extends over 30 years and carries across a wide variety of industries from telecommunications to semiconductor capital equipment, and from high accuracy meters and monitoring devices to the Department of Defense and medical devices. During my career, I’ve had the honor to work with some outstanding employers, including Emerson, Honeywell, ADC, DSI, and currently Assist Medical. So with that, let’s get started.

I’m going to start by talking through what most people use as a problem solving approach, and the typical outcomes that most companies end up with. Then, I’m going to share with you a different process based method that I think you will find much more useful. I’m going to start with an example of a problem.

I think everyone would agree that those definitely big problem here. Think about what you saw and heard so far in this video from Apollo 13. Direction was given through the action it takes. Kevin Bacon followed the directions in flip the O2 switches, and then something unexpected happened. There was an explosion, audible alarms, visual alarms. They were shaking, and definitely a problem onboard Apollo 13. Now, let’s watch the rest of the video and see how Tom Hanks reacted to this problem.

Now, let’s think about how that problem was approached. Tom Hanks came to Kevin Bacon and asked, “What did you do?” Kevin Bacon’s immediate response was, “Nothing, I stirred the tanks.” Now, is stirring the tanks doing nothing? Not really, it’s actually doing something, but the first word out of his mouth was nothing. Now, why might Kevin Bacon respond that way? Most likely, for fear and blame. He was worried that he was going to get in trouble and be blamed for the issues that were currently happening on Apollo 13. When, in fact, all he did was follow the directions that were given.

Do you think this was a good approach to identifying the problem? Most likely not. If you think about your normal problem solving approach that most people follow, the first question that is is who did it? Or what did you do? Then, we think about what’s the fix? And, of course, how fast can we get back into production, which obviously is normally very important to do. But how we approach those first three questions are really critical to accurately solving a problem.

Now, when most companies use this approach to problem solving, these are the types of solutions that they come up with. It comes up with human error. So what do we do then? Well, we train or retrain all of our operators again, or maybe once in a while we’ll discipline an employee. We’ll blame it on the training. We’ll say that the training was inadequate, so we improve or redo that training again. Or maybe the procedure wasn’t followed, or the procedure just wasn’t good enough. So what do we do? We update the procedure, we make it longer, we may add bold warnings into the procedure to really highlight those important things that may have been missed within that procedure. We may say, “Oh, people just aren’t paying attention,” so we tell everyone, “Come on. Pay attention. This is really important. You need to make sure that you’re being careful and don’t make mistakes again.”

We may add more quality checks even up to 100% inspection. Or we may go ahead and just blame the supplier and say that the supplier sent us bad parts. So we find a new supplier, when again, many times it ends up that it is the company providing the direction to the supplier. That is a bigger issue. I think all of you would agree that these are things that sound familiar when you try to solve problems at your current company. What do all these pretty much have in common? We’re looking at a person making a mistake.

I’m proposing a different approach. Let’s look at things from a process standpoint. Normally, when I do this, I usually am in front of an audience, and I offer $10 to anyone who can come up with an example of anything that is not a process. After hundreds of people that I’ve done this for, not one person has been able to come up with an example that is not a process with one exception. This actually happened during an interview that I was conducting. The person’s answer was quantum mechanics. Not knowing a whole lot about quantum mechanics, he explained the how work conceptually, and I actually could not argue with him that quantum mechanics probably does not fall under the true definition of a process. So instead of giving him $10, I ended up hiring him and he did a great job for me as an engineer. This is the only example that anyone has ever come up with for something that is not a process.

If everything is a process, then according to Dr. Deming, we should be able to describe it as a process, and if we’re not able to describe it as the process, then we just don’t know what we’re doing. Here’s an example of that. Here’s a very simple flowchart of a day in my life. For those of you who are familiar with flowcharts, you know they can be done at many different levels. They can be done at a very high level from the beginning to the end of the universe, to a day in the life of a person. Then, you could take any one of these individual steps, and do another flowchart on that particular step.

As an example, the step of washing face. Here is a more detailed flowchart just about how to wash your face. Once again, if you need to, you could even do another level flowchart on how to adjust the water temperature. How deep or high you go on flowcharts is totally dependent on the needs of the person or the people that are going to utilize this flowchart. The more detailed you need, the further you dig down. These are also usually supplemented with pictures and text as well to make them complete.

Everything’s a process. Therefore, you should be able to show it as a process. If you do that, now you are approaching problems from a different angle. You’re not focusing on a person, but rather the process that created the problem. This will now lead to different questions instead of typical questions, we can now ask, what happened? Why did it happen? How can we keep it from happening again? Or even better yet, how can we prevent it from happening in the first place? What this all leads to is a much more open discussion. Tell me more. What’s going on? Tell me how this happened. What were the situations? You’re going to find that the people you’re talking with are going to be much more open, much more honest, much more receptive, and much more willing to share their information so that you can truly understand what happened and make good fixes and improvements in your process to eliminate the potential for this happening again.

There’s literally hundreds of different tools out there that you can use to make improvements. These are my top 10 favorite. Starting out with a flowchart. A process map adds a few more dimensions on to that, primarily your critical inputs and outputs of each process step. Those are critical to understand. If you need to, do design of experiments to confirm what those critical inputs and outputs are of each process step so you can put the proper controls in place. Likely, you’re going to end up with way too many things to do, either on a project level or even within a project. Many different options how to solve a problem. With that, you can use a prioritization matrix.

Cause mapping is one of my favorite tools. You can learn more about that from Poka-Yoke is not a dance that you do at Wisconsin weddings, but rather Poka-Yoke is foolproofing a process, taking the the options of how different things can be put together, for instance, and making it so it’s foolproof and how those parts can only go together one way—the correct way.

Process capability goes back to your process map, and making sure that your process is capable of consistently producing a product that meets the requirements. Then, you can do control charts around that to find out if the process is in control, and what happens when a particular event happens that causes a special cause where the process goes out of control. It’s really important to understand what’s in control and what’s out of control. What are those special causes versus common causes so you’re not chasing your tail trying to fix common causes.

The only way to fix common causes is to make a process change. Statistical thinking is just looking at the data and making good database decisions. Then, attribute and variable, repeatability and reproducibility studies are really important to do. If you’re ever doing issues where you’re having conflict in what’s acceptable from a visual criteria standpoint, try doing an attribute repeatability and reproducibility study. I guarantee you will learn a lot from that. Whenever you’re taking measurements, you should always first do a gauge repeatability reproducibility study to make sure you can trust the values that you’re actually getting.

With that, I’d like to share one more short video with you. What this is coming to is everyone has such different experiences in their lives. As a result, we all come to situations with their own biases from our own perspectives. Our brain just works in that in that manner, where we see and hear things differently, even when we’re seeing and hearing the exact same thing. Take a listen to this video.

At first, you just hear static, but then the brain knows what to listen for. And then you’ll hear it apparently it comes down to pitch and the power of suggestion. And I think that’s a good lesson to remember. Because, you know, there are times that we’re going to disagree, and it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. What makes you better is really listening to somebody else.

I’d like to carry that just a little bit further with another example. Here is a person who’s looking at four bricks pointing towards her and saying, “How can you see only three? There’s four.” Clearly, from her perspective, there are four. But from the other person’s perspective, there’s three, not four. So they’re arguing the top of their lungs, getting absolutely nowhere, when, in fact, they both are seeing what they’re seeing. One is seeing four, the other one is seen three.

What I’d like you to do is always try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Always try to see things from another person’s perspective. Always realize that we all come with their own biases, and our own experiences and that that colors the way we see things and how we hear things. It’s important to step back, communicate, trust each other, that everyone is doing the best they can. Instead of fighting about something, rather pull together and work together and come up with the best possible solution.

Thank you very much for your time. If you enjoyed this, please let me know. I’ve got a lot more information I would love to share with you. Have a great day. Thank you very much. Bye.

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