How reliable is your problem-solving toolkit?

Have you ever come across a person at work that everyone goes to for help? If this person describes you, congratulations, you are an excellent problem-solver! This means you have the knowledge of different tools, techniques, and methods in your arsenal in which you can tap into whenever there is a problem, applying the best solution to the problem. We call this arsenal a toolkit. Just like Bob-the-Builder has his toolkit fastened to his belt, a reliable problem-solver will have their toolkit compartmentalized in their mind, ready to utilize when needed.

Since problems are of all types, from figuring out how to prioritize your workload to dealing with a difficult person at work, it’s important to understand which tool to apply for every type of problem. If there is a problem that you keep hearing about which is tagged as “impossible to solve,” then it simply means the wrong solutions were applied to the problem.

As you know, problems don’t go away, they fester into nagging pet peeves. Let me elaborate with a simple example.

Matt and Lisa buy a fancy coffee machine. They set it up on their kitchen counter, replacing the old one. On the first morning, they prepare breakfast, brew the coffee, and toast their bread. Puff! Both appliances stopped working because the fuse tripped. Matt goes to the basement to reset the fuse and Lisa turns both appliances back on. Puff again! At this point they look at each other and wonder why their old coffee machine had no issues brewing while the toaster was on, yet this new machine causes overload to the fuse.

This mundane habit becomes an irritating problem, disrupting their breakfast routine. They start wondering if the fuse needs to be changed. Luckily, they do not decide to try ignoring the issue and turning on both appliances simultaneously again. They know doing the same thing repeatedly is not going to help them. So, they decide to brew the coffee first, then make their toast. By the time they sit at the table for breakfast, their coffee is no longer hot. Since they need to get to work, they decide to figure it out on the weekend when they have more time. This is where I would tell them to buy a Yeti thermos but I’m going off topic.

On Saturday morning they are both standing in the kitchen, talking about the best way to go about it. Lisa states that if they were to use each appliance sequentially, then they are wasting time and the results would be either warm coffee or cold toast. So, she calls her cousin, the electrician, who tells her to see which electrical outlets are grouped together into this one fuse. Matt remembers seeing the information on their electrical board, goes to the basement and writes out the information to pass on to the electrician. Unfortunately, the outlets on the side of the kitchen counter all belong to one fuse. A solution would be to place each appliance on a different fuse. The electrician emphasized that changing the layout is possible, but it would be at a cost and take at least a day.

So, they look for other outlets in the kitchen space and the adjacent family room. Trying out a new layout would make sense. Lisa remembers that their hutch has LED strip lights so there must be an outlet. They find it and place the toaster on the hutch counter. Both appliances can work simultaneously without tripping any fuse. Problem solved, right? Maybe…

On Sunday they start making breakfast and Matt starts complaining about having to walk around the kitchen just to get the toaster. He mentions a Lean Six Sigma training he had been on where this would be considered what they were doing a waste. Lisa laughs and comments that if only one of them were to prepare breakfast, it would be an Olympic obstacle course to do so.

First thing Monday morning, Matt decides to see his trainer, Jack, to see if he can help with this dilemma. He tries to impress Jack by remembering some of the concepts from the one-day training which didn’t work. Jack listens attentively and then challenges Matt to map out his process steps along with Lisa’s using the spaghetti diagram. Jack proceeds by explaining how it works and showing him some examples.

Matt goes home and explains the new tool to Lisa who is open to trying anything, even though this seems weird. So, they decide to wake up earlier the following day and map each other’s flow, each observing the other’s steps and drawing it on a piece of paper. When they put the two diagrams together, they see lines everywhere and it looks chaotic. Matt decides not to bring it to Jack because something went wrong in their recording. So, they decide to try redoing the exercise after work.

All day both Lisa and Matt thought about this problem, which should not even be a problem. How can one coffee maker turn their once eight-minute routine into all this craziness!

At night, Lisa tells Matt they should try to do the things they used to do to have fewer back and forth lines on the diagram. Lisa uses the example of how she prepared the toast. She used to take the slices of bread from the bread box that was located next to the toaster and place them in the toaster. Then she would grab the plates from the cabinet above the toaster and place them on the counter. When the toast was ready, she would butter the toast, place it on the plates, and bring the plates to the table. Everything was done in one spot. Now she kept going back and forth because the hutch counter was not spacious. They try moving the bread box to the hutch, but it doesn’t fit. They keep trying out other scenarios and spend most of the night brainstorming possibilities. At the end, they feel stuck, so they decide to show Jack their original spaghetti diagrams.

The next morning, Matt gives Jack the diagrams and expresses frustration because preparing breakfast should not be a science project. Jack smiles and agrees. He goes on to tell Matt that the issue is that his toolkit for solving the problem is missing some tools. Then he sits Matt down and together they run through “What if” scenarios followed by setting up their movements into one-piece flow while relocating their appliances and inventory (bread box.) Coming up with a plan, Matt is excited to go try this out at home with Lisa.

The new flow works seamlessly, and they are marveled. Matt goes to thank Jack and tells him he is a magician with his tricks. Jack laughs and tells Matt, “There aren’t any tricks, just problem-solving tools and techniques that help me solve problems effectively. You should always look at learning new problem-solving tools for your toolkit. The more tools you learn, the more knowledge you have, and as everyone knows, knowledge is power!”

The important moral of this story is to continuously improve yourself! I teach a Lean Six Sigma certificate that encompasses over one hundred tools & techniques. Yet I write blogs depicting new tools that are not in the curriculum but are needed by my students to succeed. So never miss the opportunity to learn and apply new ways of solving problems. That’s how your toolkit will grow!


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