Four steps to unraveling a complex problem in a business process

Technology and consumer culture are changing the way we do business. With customers expecting ever-better products delivered faster, we need to be continuously looking for quality and efficiencies in the process flow. 

So what’s the best strategy?

Think of process improvement as solving a mystery. The first step, of course, is to define the problem and map out your organization’s work flows in detail, including all steps and stakeholders involved. Your next steps would be to identify a problem, test a plan to solve the problem, check whether the test worked and make adjustments, and then implement the solution. 

“What causes the most trouble
the most often?”

There are several models available to help you wrangle and record the process of problem solving. Models provide a common language and framework for problem solving, and produce a shared set of experiences to draw from and give you a better chance of fixing the thing you want to fix and having it stay fixed. 

If your company already has one of these models in place—DMAIC, 8D, Keopner Trego, Kaizen, TRIZ, Lean, Six Sigma—use it. If not, help your company choose and implement one. 

What the models listed above have in common is that they all have a basic framework of Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA). 

We’ll use the PDCA model to run a simulation that will demonstrate how to improve a business process. As with any model, each step has a number of components and considerations, but let’s keep it simple here.

1. Plan. Identify a problem, measure the process, and plan a change. To identify a problem, ask: What causes the most trouble the most often? What do customers/coworkers complain about? What would make the job easier/faster/more efficient? Make sure you have the right people on the team and decide how you’ll know if and when the problem has been solved.

2. Do. Test the change and conduct a small-scale study. Identify the stakeholders that will ensure successful implementation, and set a timeline for completion.

3. Check. Collect the data, reflect on the test, analyze the results, and identify what you’ve learned. Again, choose the right person or people for this task for the most robust and accurate data. Debrief on how the test went and whether it could have gone more smoothly.

4. Act. Take action based on what you learned. Was the test successful? If so, how will you implement the solution throughout the organization? If the experiment didn’t work, find out where you went wrong (implementation or diagnosis). Once you’ve come to a conclusion, go through the cycle again with a different plan. 

We'll practice these and other tools to unravel complex problems in Measuring and Improving Work Processes. We hope to see you there!


This article was written by Mike Finn and Scott Mohr, instructors for the University of Minnesota Measuring and Improving Work Processes course, a component of the Business Process Improvement Certificate.

Mike Finn is a Lean and Six Sigma Master Black Belt at Medtronic Corporation with 25 years of experience in process improvement. He has led and managed teams in multiple disciplines and is an inventor on a process improvement-related US patent. Mike has a Master’s Degree in systems engineering from St Thomas University.

Scott Mohr is a Lean and Six Sigma Master Black Belt at Medtronic with more than 20 years’ experience leading transformational process improvement organizations in a variety of global, regulated industries. Scott holds a BA in organizational leadership from Bethel University and is a certified GE CAP master change manager.