The Vital Role Played by Problem Detection

Detecting Problems

Before we can begin the process of problem solving, we first need to know that we have a problem. Identifying that a problem exists is called problem detection.

Detection begins with the identification of a gap between a desired level of performance and the performance being achieved. For this gap to represent a problem rather than a simple deviation, the cause of the gap would have to be unknown. Detection can be conducted through a process that uses measurement or through the use of the senses.

To use measurement for detection, we need a carefully chosen performance measure that is aligned to our problem. Both the level of performance we measure and the target level of performance would be expressed using our performance measure. For example, if we believe that our motor vehicle is using too much fuel, fuel consumption per unit of distance travelled could be our performance measure. This performance measure would have specific units of measure, in this case we could use units of litres/100 km. We can measure how many litres of fuel our motor vehicle has been using by reading our fuel bills, and then by reading our odometer, we can assess how far we have travelled between trips to the gas station. Using this data, we can calculate our actual level of performance expressed in terms of our performance measure e.g. 13 litres/100 km. By comparing that consumption to what we expect (9 litres/100 km, our target), we can determine if our vehicle is using too much fuel or not, and the size of the gap – in this case, the gap is 4 litres/100 km. If there are no obvious reasons for this gap, such as an increase in the load on the vehicle due to additional passengers, we have a problem.

Use of the senses is more subjective than the use of measurement, but is a very important way to detect problems. Use of the senses provides us with an early warning system, often alerting us to problems before they surface in the form of a measurable performance gap. We could hear a strange noise coming from the gearbox of our vehicle, indicating a problem there, as a simple example of use of the senses for problem detection. In the case of this gearbox problem, the standard we are comparing to is what the gearbox should sound like when in use – in general, there should be no audible sound coming from the gearbox during its operation. The noise would be a sign of impending failure, and this could be addressed before it resulted in a total breakdown of the gearbox, which would render the motor vehicle inoperable. 

Organisations need to build detection into the systems used to manage their operations. This means choosing which parameters to measure, setting targets and monitoring performance continuously. Employees also need to be trained to detect problems through the use of their senses by establishing standards as to how operations, products and services should look, feel, taste, smell and/or sound when they are meeting required standards, and how to sense when there is a performance gap.

By reducing the time taken to detect problems, we reduce the time taken to solve them and hence are able to sustain superior levels of performance. This is only possible when we have robust systems in place for problem detection. 

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