Define the Problem by Asking the Right Questions

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TEC Worldwide is an international organization of more than 7,000 business owners, company presidents and chief executives. TEC members meet in small peer groups to share their business experiences and help one another solve problems. The following questions and answers are based on discussions at recent TEC meetings in Southern California.

Question: I run a manufacturing company. Lately, our quality has been slipping, our rework has increased, and customer complaints have skyrocketed. Morale is at an all-time low, and I feel like we’re on the verge of really losing it. I keep hammering at my plant manager to fix these problems, but things aren’t getting better. Any suggestions?

Answer: First, make sure you’re tackling the real issue. Keep in mind that the problem you define is the one you ultimately solve.


To define the right problem, said John Rashap, president of DocuSource in Chatsworth, start by asking the right questions. How do you know you have a quality issue? Do you track quality as a key indicator? If so, what do you measure? Do your workers believe they are having quality problems? If so, what reasons do the people responsible for quality give for the slippage?

Do you have hard data that point to quality problems or is your evidence mostly anecdotal? What type of production statistics do you track at a management level, and what do you publish for your staff to review? Do you track performance by shift or do you measure across the entire company? For example, do the product failures happen uniformly across both shifts or does one shift routinely outperform the other? Also, do you measure customer satisfaction and other “softer” indicators that might point to quality problems?

Examine your relationship with the plant manager, said Quentin Leef, president of Kerning Data Systems in Chatsworth.

Do you have good two-way communication? How often do you meet with him to discuss problems? Is there a history of you not being receptive to his feedback?

You may learn that he is operating under a different set of assumptions regarding what he needs to accomplish.

Another area deserving close scrutiny is your compensation system. Do you reward quality or quantity? If people’s pay is based solely on the number of units out the door, quality will always come in second.


Before taking any action, said Lou Kravitz, president of Louis Kravitz & Associates in Encino, make sure you have the facts.

If you don’t monitor key production indicators, start doing so now. More important, communicate the results to your people.

“”If people don’t know what you expect from them, they are left to their own devices,” Kravitz said. “Also, start talking to people other than your plant manager. Identify the quality issues your customers consider most important and track them closely.”

Don Riddell, chief executive of Options for Youth in Pasadena, recommends implementing a short-term incentive plan to boost morale and get your front-line people focused on what needs to happen.

“Identify your most pressing problem and set up a 90-day incentive program, whereby if employees raise quality by X percent, they earn Y amount of dollars,” he said. “In general, once you fix a production problem, it stays fixed. Then you can devise a new incentive and shift your attention to the next problem.”

Bill Lockwood, chief executive of Platt Colleges in La Canada, suggests getting everyone involved in solving the problem, particularly in the area of customer complaints.


“Bring specific customer complaints directly to your plant manager, your supervisors and the people who do the work,” he said. “Then ask, ‘Are these valid? If so, why did they happen and what can we do to fix them?’ Don’t try to force your solution on people. Instead, let them solve the problem and you steer the process.”

Above all, let your people know that you mean business. Make quality improvement a touchstone of all your internal communications.

Focus people’s attention on objectives and measure results. Once you achieve the goals, celebrate your success and then turn your attention to longer-term goals that reflect ongoing quality-improvement efforts.


If there is a business issue you would like addressed in this column, contact TEC at (800) 274-2367, Ext. 3177. To learn more about TEC, visit


Note: Starting Oct. 1, this column will appear in Monday’s Business section.