Solving Problems in the Pandemic: What to Do When it Hits the Fan

by | Jul 29, 2020


Welcome to article #5 in my “Climbing the Reopen Mountain” series on using OpEx methods to help you face pandemic-driven changes. For more articles on this topic, see my blog list.


workers in hazmat suits

All Hands…No, Wait…FEWER Hands on Deck!

In my last post, I talked about how to plan for when the sh$t hits the fan. Now let’s talk about what to do when it actually happens. 

When it hits the fan, it’s time to get into problem solving mode! But when you try to do that, you’ll find that COVID-19 is going to impede your efforts. Your people can’t, like they used to, just all pile into a conference room with gallons of coffee and dozens of donuts and spend hours (maybe even days?) arguing the issues and thinking of ideas to try. 

As an executive or manager, you need to require and facilitate a more focused, smarter approach that accomplishes three things: 

First, your approach needs to minimize the number of on-site people involved in problem-solving to avoid unnecessary exposure to each other. You don’t want one team, or worse, one site, potentially infecting another and causing a cascading supply chain failure.

Second, your approach needs to leverage people working remotely. These people may, in fact, be your subject matter experts (SMEs) who could be older and/or have underlying conditions that make them more likely to be severely affected by COVID-19. You don’t want to expose them to other people unnecessarily.

Third, you need to generate a solution very quickly. Problems cause defects and rework, which require extra and non-standard handling. This could cause more people to be exposed to each other and non-standard procedures are prone to errors and mistakes, which compounds the issue further.

So, how to accomplish all three? 

First Step: Draft a Good Problem Statement

The MOST important first step is to draft a good problem statement; it is the basis of efficient, effective problem solving. A good problem statement clarifies what the heck the problem really is! This allows you to pull together the right people and resources. And allows them to start analyzing, creating and testing solutions that are likely to work RIGHT AWAY.

As a reminder, a good problem statement has five characteristics:

  1. Relevant – deals with current situation only; doesn’t go far into the past
  2. Factual – only what’s been accurately observed or measured; no hunches or guesses
  3. Concise – a couple of sentences at most; think 30-second elevator pitch
  4. No blame – doesn’t assign blame; no politics or vendettas
  5. No solutions – doesn’t suggest a solution; keep an open mind

Writing one sounds easy, but people frequently struggle as they try to set aside their biases and simply describe what they actually know about the situation. Sometimes, in frustration, they quit trying to meet the five criteria because, you know, there’s an urgent problem to be solved and we have to get going!

Don’t let your problem solving team go off half-cocked without a good problem statement. Without one, they’ll go around in circles, spin their wheels and throw a lot of stuff at the wall, hoping something sticks. You don’t have time for that and, as I mentioned above, you don’t want to risk unnecessary viral exposure, mistakes and defects due to non-standard procedures. 

Once you have a good problem statement, you can pull together a smaller problem-solving team and spring into action! I’m not going to talk about all the possible problem-solving tools you might employ; there are way too many, but, let me suggest a couple of ideas that will work especially well in pandemic circumstances.


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Second Step: Go Digital to Leverage People Working Remotely

Your smaller team will in all likelihood still need input from other people, especially those at the gemba (workplace). Use digital technologies to capture people’s observations and ideas. Let them use phones or tablets to capture pictures, vids or sounds of what’s happening and post them with annotations and comments.

Store everything on an easily accessible platform that logically organizes content and captures comments, e.g., Slack, Sharepoint, Evernote, Basecamp, Dropbox. This will be particularly useful for your remote experts who can review submissions, ask questions and point people in new directions.


Third Step: Use the Most Powerful Tools Available to Generate Solutions Quickly

Based on your initial data analysis, apply powerful tools like designed experiments and simulations to quickly gather additional data and model what’s happening. 

Designed experiments (DOE) are sets of statistically-determined trials that change multiple process factors simultaneously. The old, one-variable-at-a-time approach is too slow and limited, especially for complex processes with many factors. You will run many fewer trials with DOE, gather much higher quality data, quickly identify main effects and reveal factor interactions. The resulting data can be used to model processes and drive simulations. 

(A quick side note…If you have a really tough problem that you haven’t been able to completely solve or that inexplicably comes back time and again, it could be due to unknown or poorly understood factor interactions. And only DOE can solve this for you.)

Simulations allow you to try new ideas virtually. Instead of having to physically set up and run a new process in your plant or office to assess its effectiveness, you can model it on a computer. With a well-built simulation you can change parameters in a couple of clicks to try new ideas, all the time getting closer and closer to the best solution. Simulation can dramatically reduce people’s exposure to each other and provide even more data for your SME to consider from the safety of their home office.

With a solid solution from your various simulations, you can make real changes in the office or on the factory floor or in the lab, run the new process, gather data and compare it to your model’s predictions. This limits people’s exposure to each other and doesn’t waste their time setting up and tearing down ideas that really didn’t have much chance of success anyway.


What You Can Do Now

If you haven’t read my previous newsletter on planning for problems before you ramp up, do so now. And make sure your team is well-qualified to use OpEx techniques such as Good Problem Statements, Designed Experiments and Simulations.  

If your team needs to learn these techniques, we can help you train them up quickly by remote learning. Or, if you’re in the thick of it and there’s no time for training, call or email me. I can help you apply them immediately. 

Todd Hudson, Head Maverick