Problem Analysis Tools for Engineers

February 08, 2018

We encounter problems almost every day. There are very different approaches to deal with them. Some problems are short term and some are long term. Some involve decisions. Some involve a whole range of problems from which priorities must be chosen.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to solving problems. But there are certain tools which can help you solve them anyway. These methods help you think through the issue.

These tools are called the Problem Analysis Tools. Selecting the right tools to solve a problem is paramount to not only ensure the analysis is effective and efficient, but also that the core problem and the real root cause is in fact identified.

Identifying the problem and root cause doesn’t require complex tools. Here are the seven simple tools that can effectively help you solve a problem:

1. Brainstorming

The brainstorming process brings together a group of people to discuss the issue in a question in a facilitated environment. The basic premise is that a group of people working collectively to find a solution is more productive and innovative than if each person tried to come up with a solution individually.

Basic steps of the brainstorming process include: scheduling a meeting, informing the participants of the topic to be discussed, assigning a specific person in the meeting who will write down people’s thoughts, with all participants having equal opportunity to participate. The resulting discussion should identify the root cause of the problem which then you can try to resolve.

2. Flowcharting

Flowcharts organise information about a process in a graphical manner, making it clear what is impacted. Although there are numerous flowcharting tools available, it is recommended that individuals keep their flowcharts simple, using a rectangle for a process step, an arrow for direction, and a diamond for a decision point.

3. The 5 Whys

Suggested by some as being the simplest root cause analysis tool, “the 5 whys” technique uses a question-asking method to explore the cause-and-effect relationship underlying the problem. Essentially, the investigator keeps asking “why” until a meaningful conclusion is reached. Generally, a minimum of five questions should be asked, although additional questions are sometimes required if the real cause is yet to be identified, rather than simply settling for a partial conclusion.




4. Pareto Analysis

According to the theory behind Pareto Analysis, 20% of causes lead to 80% of results. This goes for negative results as well as positive results. By analyzing and scoring the negative outcomes of various causes, it’s possible to pinpoint the rotten 20%—and then target those causes for positive action. In other words, Pareto Analysis allows you to decide which problems really matter, and take action to eliminate them.

5. Fishbone Diagrams

In a fishbone diagrams, the various causes are grouped into categories, with arrows in the image indicating how the causes flow toward the nonconformity. Categories used in the fishbone diagram are not pre-defined, but common categories include equipment, processes or methods, measurements, materials, environment, and people.

6. Problem Tree Analysis

Problem tree analysis (also called Situational Analysis or just Problem Analysis) helps to find solutions by mapping out the anatomy of cause and effect around an issue in a similar way to a Mind map, but with more structure. The problem tree analysis belongs to the family of participatory planning techniques, in which all parties involved identify and analyse the needs together, creating ownership and commitment among the involved parties (e.g. beneficiaries, implementing organisations, local governments).


7. Affinity Diagrams

The final root cause analysis tool is affinity diagrams. Often the output from a brainstorming session, an affinity diagram can be used to generate, organise, and consolidate information related to the issue in question.

After ideas have been generated, they can be grouped according to their similarity to identify the major causes. An affinity diagram should be used to stimulate discussion about a problem or issue, opening up possibilities for improvement or solution.

You must note that combining tools is often necessary in order to find the root cause. For example, although brainstorming can lead to some great hypotheses, the data can be difficult to confirm without organising it in a Fishbone Diagram or Problem Tree Analysis, and then seeking out objective evidence to substantiate the idea.

Although most problem analysis tools have the desired results if they are correctly applied, it is important to make sure people know how to use them.


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