ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Creating an Effective Problem Solving Team
Teams use increased participation to generate higher productivity. By increasing participation, teams have more knowledge available, as well as more creativity to develop better decisions. Teams also involve numerous people in developing ideas, which means less time selling and implementing them. Teams also build morale—because their participation is encouraged, members feel more involved and have more enthusiasm, energy and loyalty. The ultimate results are greater accomplishments for organizations as a whole.
Numerous types of teams exist, including continuous improvement teams, self-directed teams and implementation teams. The focus of this article is on small problem solving teams, temporary groups of three to 10 people that are brought together to investigate a problem and implement solutions. Such teams have been used to reduce waste on manufacturing floors, improve customer satisfaction and employee morale, and plan charitable events. Their success involves using the right discussion tools, implementing a robust problem solving method founded on accurate data, and holding effective meetings.
Discussion ToolsDiscussion tools are used to ensure participation and creativity while the team is engaged in dialogue on a topic. The most widely used tool is brainstorming. In this activity, ideas are randomly submitted by members and visually displayed. No criticisms are allowed, giving members freedom in creative expression. Brainstorming sessions are appropriate when the group is uncertain about the next step to take or seems locked in a particular position, or when priorities for different options are unknown. Productive brainstorming sessions not only create a plethora of ideas, but also generate feelings of energy and enthusiasm.
Once the ideas have been listed, a team can use multi-voting to narrow them down. The group decides whether members can vote for as many ideas as they want or a specific number. After tallying the votes, the group can identify their strongest interests. Multi-voting, however, should only be used to identify the focus of the group; it is neither a substitute for an experiment, nor a way to make team decisions.
Another discussion tool is “round-robin,” in which different members take turns expressing their ideas as a way to control the conversation. This tool is appropriate for brainstorming sessions, for giving opinions in a heated discussion or for use in conference calls when people cannot see each other.
Problem Solving ToolsEffective team problem solving requires focusing on the right ideas, as well as using the appropriate tools and the right approach. The scientific approach is a systematic way to use objective data rather than subjective guesses, to look for underlying causes to problems rather than surface symptoms, and to implement permanent solutions rather than quick fixes. In the long run, this approach provides the team with a direction, making success more probable. Knowledge, experience and intuition are also helpful for solving problems, but they are limited by past experiences. Exploring new theories and examining processes in innovative ways requires the power of data.
Collecting good data starts by choosing the right data to collect, then working with that data in a scientific manner. Good data identifies, measures and helps solve problems. Furthermore, teams are more likely to make improvements when they feel ownership of the data, feel control over the results, and can understand the cause/effect relationship of the numbers they collect. Therefore, whenever data is needed, the team should agree on how to collect and analyze the data. Data collected without a careful thought process can lead to guessing games, delaying the implementation of the best solution.
The Joiner Method,1 illustrated in Figure 1, can serve as a roadmap for using the scientific approach and collecting data in team problem solving.
Step 1: Select A Project. The first step is to select a project and write a charter statement. This responsibility rests with management, which should be familiar with the mistakes, delays and/or inefficiencies in the process that need investigation. Projects might include reducing process variation or reducing the many forms of waste (defects, inventory, waiting, human mind, overproduction, processing, “just in case” accountability, motion, transportation, inspection, etc.). A team’s first project should be one that would lead to a quick solution, thereby helping the team gain credibility and confidence.
After choosing the project, management should define the resources. The resources will define the team’s ability to implement solutions and the management’s commitment to the project. Management should then provide the written charter statement, starting with the problem, described as the “situation” and “effect;” why this project is important to the organization; the resources, including boundaries and limits; the magnitude of improvement expected; and an approximate schedule.
One tool for this task is a process flowchart, shown in Figure 2. Comparing an actual flowchart that includes unnecessary steps, inspections and adjustments to an ideal flow chart is an excellent way to assess the magnitude of improvements possible.
Step 4: Find Solutions. When the team feels confident in their understanding of the root cause to the problem, they are ready to begin finding solutions. The team should first define criteria on which the decisions will be based. For example, how easy would it be to implement? Are the causes addressed? What are the true costs, and what are the benefits? Does upper management support it? Could it create new problems? Is it a long- or short-term benefit? Brainstorming can then take place, followed by evaluation using the established criteria. A small-scale test may also be appropriate at this time.
Step 5: Measure the Results. In the fifth step, the small-scale test is measured using performance metrics and criteria that had been previously defined. In this step, the team decides on greater scale implementation, further cause analysis or more alternative solutions. Also by this time, the team will have improved their understanding of the process, allowing for greater insight into other issues for improvement. The team can increase the scale of implementation as confidence in success increases.
Step 6: Standardize the Solutions. The final step is often the most difficult. The team has discovered the cause of the problem and identified an appropriate solution through regular meetings. Standardization involves implementing new methods and training to ensure that the solutions will be long lasting. The work in this stage usually involves members of the organization that are not part of the problem solving team, so management’s commitment to supporting these activities is essential. The team’s work should also be written up for future reference, and a time period should be established to evaluate the improvements and ensure their permanence.
When problems become urgent, the team can be tempted to panic. People start talking a lot, stop listening to each other, and emphasize quick results. The cause analysis is not a quick result and often is skipped, making it harder to develop appropriate solutions, which may not be thoroughly evaluated. The team can easily find itself involved in guessing games and may lose confidence in the process, as well as valuable time. Furthermore, when a solution is found and the emergency is over, the team can be tempted to skip standardization as well, forcing a new team to face the same problem several months or years down the road. For these reasons, the Joiner method, in its entirety, is necessary for problem solving.
Team MeetingsFor a group to work together, they must meet together. In today’s information age, with the availability of E-mail, chat rooms, phone conferencing and video conferencing, the best meetings still use face-to-face communication to generate productivity, creativity, efficiency, participation and commitment in solving problems and making decisions. Successful meetings have a defined purpose and a previously agreed-upon process that draws on the scientific method. Good meetings also have clear assignment of a facilitator, timekeeper and recorder, and use 100% consensus decision making to arrive at the best solutions.
However, meetings also have numerous negative perceptions. Most meetings have their roots in parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order, where ideas are presented and then accepted or rejected. This structure leaves little room for creativity and collaboration between the participants, focusing instead on win/lose solutions. Participants may feel they have accomplished nothing and be pessimistic about future meetings. Other types of ineffective meetings include those conducted by the manager for the purpose of promoting the manager’s ideas. Studies have shown that the manager often speaks 60% of the time, hardly leaving enough time to sustain the creative problem solving process or draw commitment from participants. Meetings where individuals are attacked for submitting ideas, or that are dominated by one or two participants, draw similar negative reactions. Conversely, successful meetings, which are characterized by a clear purpose, an interactive process, effective facilitation, consensus decisions and clear roles, generate positive energy that can spread throughout the organization.
Planning a meeting starts with developing a purpose. What is the expected outcome of the meeting? Who should be invited? When and where should the meeting be? The next planning step is the meeting opening, which should encourage an interactive process. With some groups, the problem can simply be stated. With new teams, interaction can be encouraged through introductions that disclose personal information, such as the number of years they have been with the company, their personal feelings about the problem at hand, or what it means to work as a team. After opening the meeting, the facilitator can ask the team if they agree to solve the problem, and then agree to a process. Any of the discussion tools and/or the Joiner problem solving method could be used. This opening part of the meeting or team project can also be used to discuss attendance requirements or ground rules, and set the agenda. For some meetings, the facilitator can do this in advance. In other cases, the team could be asked for agenda items. Regardless of the method, the team should have the opportunity to add or delete items at the start of the meeting. Each agenda item should include the topic, the tools to be used, an approximate time limit and the expected outcome. Preparing these steps—the purpose, logistics, opening and agenda—prior to meeting, is necessary to ensure that the meeting it will be interactive and effective.
During a meeting, three key roles need to be filled: the timekeeper, the recorder and the facilitator. The timekeeper watches the clock during each agenda item and signals the team when the specified time limit is near. The time warning provides an opportunity for the facilitator to encourage others to participate, especially if one member has been dominating. The role of recorder is to note down information on flipcharts. By using a clearly visible medium, team members are visually engaged, increasing the feeling of involvement. After the meeting, the recorder can prepare minutes that include the main ideas discussed, the decisions made and action items for each topic. Meeting minutes that are distributed quickly communicate the importance of the projects the team is working on.
The facilitator’s role is to ensure an effective meeting by keeping the team focused on the agreed upon process and defending members against attack. Facilitators do this by remaining neutral on issues and avoiding the intimidation of team members. When opening discussions, facilitators can encourage participation by stating the topic, providing any background information, and then stating the expected outcome. As ideas are produced, the facilitator can demonstrate listening skills by summarizing and asking questions, thus encouraging others to speak more. Dominating members can be distracted with a comment like, “Janelle, that sounds like a great idea. Beverly, what do you think?” If the group becomes stuck on an issue, facilitators can suggest alternative topics or methods of discussing the issue. As the discussion begins to dwindle, or before proceeding to the next step, the facilitator can test the group for agreement.
The facilitator also ensures that decision making is a win/win situation. By making decisions as a team, there is greater understanding of the impact on other people, other projects, the organization and the future. The method to ensure win/win is by requiring 100% consensus. That does not mean that everyone thinks the choice is the best; it means that each team member can go along with that solution without feeling that they have given something up. Making consensus decisions will increase commitment to the decision and speed implementation time. Additionally, consensus requires communication and leads to greater creativity and improved understanding. Methods like voting are win-lose and do not require much interaction, and result in disgruntled team members that want to “get back.” Similarly, when one individual on the team makes the decision, little interaction is present, as is the case when the team indefinitely puts off the decision. Facilitators desiring consensus should make sure all members are participating and listening to each other. If members are talking over each other, the facilitator can step in and summarize the different views. When members voice objections, the facilitator can probe their underlying concerns, and then suggest methods of dealing with those concerns, which could mean research or experimentation. Alternatively, the facilitator can suggest trial periods before reevaluation. If emotions begin to run high, the facilitator can take control by acknowledging the emotion but reminding everyone of the task at hand.
It is difficult to imagine people, as different as they are, agreeing all the time. But the purpose of a team is to work on one problem that everyone has agreed to solve. The team will be relying on objective data as much as possible instead of on hunches, intuition or experience. If the manager who commissioned the team is concerned about the team’s ability to achieve win/win, he or she can give the team a time limit to achieve a win/win solution, or else face another method. Such empowerment will make the team more conscious of its role, and more likely to achieve their goals.