Monday, 23 February 2015

Problem Solving and Idea Prioritisation

I am sure many of you have experienced meetings, that have been arranged with the goal to solve a particular problem, but instead end up going around in endless circles with no greater shared understanding of the problem at the end let alone any solutions. This is where problem solving techniques can come in useful.

There can be common barriers to effective problem solving such as;
  • Fixation - difficulty approaching a problem from different perspectives which can lead to preconceived assumptions about possible ideas and solutions
  • Confirmation bias - seeing solutions to a problem based on our own idea and beliefs of the problem rather than based upon what the problem really is
  • A lack of understanding of the problems root cause - this can lead to solving the wrong problem or only part of it
  • Preconceived constraints on possible solutions - this can limit the generation of new ideas and any possible changes to what is currently happening
  • A fear of change

Further difficulties can arise when trying to define and solve a problem as part of a group. It will always be challenging to put a group of people with similar or different personalities together in a room and hope for balanced creative participation. It is more likely than not that there will be individuals that naturally take the lead, while others are more passive. These can lead to a bias in the definition of the problem and any potential solutions. It is however extremely valuable to conduct problem solving as part of a group as it can encourage a greater understanding of the problem from different perspectives and consequently more effective solutions to be generated.

There are different techniques that can be used to negate some of these barriers. Some will be more effective than others and should be chosen with the audience and aims in mind. A few of these techniques are discussed in greater detail below.

  • 5 Whys
It is often difficult to identify the root cause of a problem and a technique such as 5 Whys can help you do to do this. This simple technique is designed to help you understand the cause and effect relationships behind a problem through asking the question ‘Why?’ until the root cause is identified.

  • The Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule)
Named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, put simply, The Pareto Principle is the rule that 80% of the problems come from 20% of the causes. It requires you to list and the score all your problems with a consistent measure e.g. no. of complaints. These scores will then need to be converted into percentages. Rank these from highest to lowest and calculate the cumulative percentage. You should then be able to see the problems that account for 80% of the complaints, allowing you to better target your efforts and attention to the problems that are having the greatest effect.

  • Brainstorming
Brainstorming is a common and widely used technique to generate a list of ideas quickly and allows participants to think more broadly whilst using their own knowledge and experiences. One variation of this is ‘Negative Brainstorming’, whereby participants are asked to explore many different factors in reverse. Rather than asking ‘what is the problem and how can we fix it’ it asks ‘what causes the problem and how can we make it worse’. This technique is useful as it encourages participants to consider many different causes of the problem, some of which may not have been realised before, helping the group to better understand the root cause of the problem before turning them into possible solutions.

As previously mentioned, it is not uncommon for groups to become fixated by other group members ideas or suggestions. For this reason it can be useful to firstly write down any possible ideas individually and in silence before coming together to consider and discuss one another's ideas as a team.
The way you phrase the question is also important as words carry implicit meanings and can affect how we perceive a problem. When phrasing your question it is important to consider the following tips:
  • Assume that there are many different solutions - ‘In what ways might we...’ rather than ‘How can we...’
  • Phrase the question positively - more motivating
  • Phrase it as a question - suggests there are answers and solutions to this problem

Once the group have identified many different potential solutions and ideas, it is then necessary to evaluate these to decide which ones are viable, realistic and likely to make a difference. Simple voting techniques can be used by the group to decide which options they would like to take forward and investigate further. This can also help to narrow back down the list of possible options and refocus the group by removing those with the lowest number of votes before a further vote takes place.
Ideas can also be ranked according to the ease of doing them against their likely impact on the problem. Those that are difficult to do and are unlikely to have any great impact on the problem are likely to be a waste of time and money. However those that are easy to do and will have a great impact on the problem are a brilliant place to start.

Each potential idea should also be considered for whether it is; valuable, suitable, acceptable, feasible and enduring (V-SAFE).

PIU have recently started to run half-day training sessions looking at creative problem solving techniques and methods for idea prioritisation. The session explores different techniques and when they might be useful, including exercises to allow for some hands on experience. If you are interested in this training or would like to know more, please visit the LMS or get in touch with us.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Making Lean Work in HE. Steering Group inspiration.

On 12 February, Professor Peter Hines ( came to talk to our Steering Group about  ‘Making Lean Work in a University’. Of particular interest to the group were the two examples of Lean in HE. Firstly, Peter spoke about setting up the Lean University at Cardiff University and some of the challenges the team faced. These challenges were very similar to the challenges we experience for example, successful working with HR and Finance yet challenges of working on student facing processes because they are harder to standardise and tend to happen on an annual rather than monthly cycle.

Peter also gave the example of Kangan TAFE in Melbourne, where Lean is a way of life for staff within the institution. This is a fantastic example of Lean working in education and something to which we can only aspire.

The presentation lasted most of the meeting, which meant that we had less time to update the group about our projects and other items of note. However, I’m really pleased that the group had the opportunity to hear Professor Hines’ presentation and hope that it has inspired us all to make lean work at The University of Sheffield.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

More Print and Design Improvements

Some of you may have read our case study about the Print Invoicing project we ran last year ( We were delighted that Print and Design Solutions  (PDS) came back to us with another project.

The scope of the project was to look at the print estimating process. The purpose of the project was to reduce turnaround times from request to receipt of the estimate and create a standardised process that all staff could follow, and would also cover staff annual leave/absence.
We held a four-day event with a project team just before Christmas. The team had collected a lot of data for us to use, so the first morning involved data analysis rather than collection, this gave us a head start.
Image result for lego mini figureIn the afternoon we were keen to understand the “voice of the customer’, we had a couple of customers of PDS come in and talk to the team. Then we spent the afternoon creating some customer personas, we had a bit of fun with some Lego minifigures and the team produced some really good presentations, identifying different customer types and what they need/want from the service.

Day two was good old process mapping, we identified 13 different ways for a customer to request a print estimate, this added a level of complexity for the customer and estimator and made it difficult to identify the order in which work was coming into the service. We also spent time looking at the file storage for estimates, and files required for production, We found 2100 folders in print estimating alone, this made it difficult for work to be tracked and created opportunities for jobs to be handled twice. We looked at the print estimating form and realised that it offered customers too many options e.g. type of paper, finish and that the guidance was unclear if a customer was unfamiliar with the print production process.

For the final two days, we delivered some lean training; we created a new process, an action plan for implementation and a presentation for the sponsor. Outputs were:
  • An improved process that reduced the number of ways into the process to 4 (this was guided by the customer persona work from earlier in the week),
  • An improved way of managing customer files
  • Improved guidance for reception staff
  • An improved form for the estimate request process (with a standard set of options for customers, and clear guidance for customers)
  • Some physical layout changes within PDS which allow print estimators to sit together and share work as a team, rather than separately.
A couple of weeks ago we met up with the team, one month on, albeit Christmas got in the way of some of the time they needed for implementation. 

Update on improvements:
  • The estimating form has been produced; it looks fantastic and is already being used by new customers.
  • The estimating team now sit together, this change has improved communication and workflow amongst the team
  • The electronic file storage has changed and there is clear guidance for staff on how to use this.  
  • The team met with the whole of PDS to communicate why the changes were being made, and staff have been very supportive.
Further work is needed to deal with work that is shared via Google Drive or drop box, the team have some ideas, but need to test this out as a new way of working. Also some development work is needed to further enhance the print estimating form to allow file attachment.
We look forward to meeting up with the team at the three-month review meeting to hear about further progress and to start measuring the improvements.  Already, the estimators are reporting a reduction in turnaround time for estimates and fewer estimates as work in progress.