Top Down Problem Solving For Managers

managers resource handbook

I was asked to attend a meeting by the manufacturing manager.

                                                 “We have a problem” he said.

He had been alerted of a problem with products being processed through the production floor. Initial information suggested that during some of the molding processes, some parts were noted to have cracked while the molten plastic cooled. The parts had been in production for a few years and there had not been any prior occurrence on these particular parts. I was last to arrive into a conference room full of people.

                                                 “Maybe there is a contaminant in the plastic material” said the quality manager.

                                                 “If there was a contaminant, we would have found it in our sampling” responded the cell leader of the particular manufacturing stage in question.

                                                 The manufacturing manager added his thought “Is there an issue with the mold?”

                                                 “Maybe the plastic was not hot enough; that would explain the cracking” commented the product line manager.

                                                 “At what temperature would that be a problem?” someone asked.

                                                 “Not sure, but we should look at it. What about parts that may have shipped?”

                                                 “How many parts were shipped last month? Let’s pull the records” the quality manager responded.

                                                 “Did pump number one show signs of malfunction? You know we’ve been having issues with that recently” another manager offered.  

Within the first 5 minutes of the meeting, my head was spinning and I was completely lost. The only thing that was clear to me was the group’s immediate attempt to troubleshoot and solve the issue noted on the manufacturing floor. The problem had first been caught by chance by an inspector only a few hours earlier, before moving into the next stage of the process. No one had answers, but everyone had ideas. I quickly realized the conversation was going to result in minimal constructive action and that we were losing time.

The Problem with Problem Solving

What happens when we face a big problem or daunting challenge? We want to make it go away, right? As demonstrated by the conversation above, our natural tendency when facing these situations is to make the problem disappear. For example, when we get ill, we want to just feel better. When we look at cleaning out an old closet that has accumulated a myriad of things over the years, we just want it all to be arranged quickly. And when our computers act up, the first action many people take is to reboot, regardless of what the symptoms may be.

The same thoughts apply to us when solving problems in the working world. When an uncomfortable situation emerges, we want to find a quick resolution and make the problem disappear. However, people are naturally subjected to biases, opinions and hunches, all of which can be extremely far off from the actual root cause. The result from this behavior, of course, is the natural tendency to offer immediate and instantaneous solutions or corrective measures without really understanding a root cause.

Overcoming the Challenges of Problem Solving

Situations like this one are a common scenario that many managers encounter in their careers. An issue pops up unexpected somewhere in the company and the managers of key departments are called in to help solve the problem. For many, problem solving is part of a daily occurrence. And in many cases, the problems are easily overcome. But when the stakes are particularly high and time is short, many of us fall into a very common trap: losing sight of structured problem solving in favor of offering an abundance of ideas to investigate.

When it comes to solving problems, a manager’s best friends are structure and control. As was the case when I sat down with several highly experienced managers, the intensity and complexity created by some problems can lead even the best and most experienced managers to seek immediate remedies, jump to conclusions, speculate and otherwise run the likelihood of missing something.

The solution: Use a structured approach to identifying the cause, followed by taking appropriate steps to correct and prevent it from happening again in the future.

One Example: The 8D Approach to Problem Solving

There are many ways to look at problem solving approaches. One common approach to structured problem solving is the “8D” or 8 Disciplined process, which outlines a series of 8 steps that a core team follows to help get to the root of a problem. The 8D process was originally created by the US Department of Defense in the early 1970s, but has since been widely adapted by most notably, the automobile industry. For reference, the following table outlines the 8 steps of the 8D process.

D0PlanPlan for structured problem solving and outline any upfront needs.
D1Use a TeamCreate a team of key knowledge holders of the product or process of concern.
D2Defining the ProblemAccurately define the problem in quantifiable and very specific terms (who, what, where, …etc). The more details and symptoms noted the better.
D3Establish Containment Plans and Interim ActionsUntil the issue can be eliminated, identify and outline actions to contain the problem as well as minimize it’s downstream impacts to customers.
D4Identify and Verify Root Causes and Escape ModesIdentify all possible scenarios that may have caused the problem, as well as why the problem was not caught before it occurred. Each possible cause should be thoroughly investigated until it can be proven or disproven to have contributed.
D5Identify and Verify Correct Action and Preventative MeasuresBased on identified root cause(s), identify and test preventative measures to prevent the issue from occurring again. Use data collection to compare effectiveness of the possible preventative measures.
D6Implement and Validate Corrective Action into ProcessImplement and validate the best corrective action in the production arena.
D7Take Permanent ActionAdjust management and control systems as well as operating procedures in order to prevent recurrence of the problem.
D8Recognize the TeamA formal recognition of the team’s efforts by the organization’s leaders


While 8D is a popular choice by many managers and businesses, other formal methods exist. Regardless of which approach you choose, the intent of the process is always the same: to structure your actions and make sure all options are considered and vetted.

Why Structured Problem Solving Works

Unfortunately, despite our tendencies, managers face these types of problems often. A structured approach to tackling the issue, though, allows managers and team members to avoid the “just make it go away” problem solving approach, which is unlikely to really find the root cause of an issue. Without a problem solving framework, investigating the numerous ideas and theories that will naturally emerge is inefficient and most likely ineffective.

On the other hand, structured problem solving techniques force managers to outline and define various common themes and channels that must be explored individually. Further, these methods help keep managers and leaders from jumping to conclusions. It is the forced rigor and thoroughness that structured problem solving methods offer that ensure the core team investigates all possibilities in order to get to the true root cause. Simply put, before doing a deep-dive into a potential equipment malfunction, identify all possible malfunctions that could have occurred with any related equipment.

A Top Down Approach To Problem Solving

Ultimately, no matter what principle or approach you follow, they all endeavor to drive the same behavior: a top down approach. At the top are the high level buckets, each of which contains its own subset of items to be investigated.

From the example at the opening, there were essentially three top level buckets: Process, Material, and Equipment. Process referred to changes that had potentially been made in the steps, people or sequencing of the production activities. Material referred to all concerns that related to the plastic material and anything that could impact its condition in terms of molding. Equipment included tools, molds and any machinery that was used in the production of the parts. Once we had the high level buckets, we were able to focus our conversation and look more closely at each one.

Being disciplined and subscribing to a top down method allows managers to approach daunting problems on a controlled and prescriptive manner. This control allows managers to peel back the complexity one layer at a time, and avoid off-the-cuff troubleshooting.

The next time you encounter a difficult problem in the office, consider a top-down method such as the 8D approach. Let us know how it works out; we’d love to hear it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *