1/1/2006 | 3 MINUTE READ

Detective Work

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The first reference is to a television show: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.


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The first reference is to a television show: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Which is odd given that the subject of the discussion is improving products and processes and problem solving. Yet Richard D. Shainin, executive vice president, Shainin LLC. (www.shainin.com), says that one of the things that he learned from his late father, Dorian Shainin, who established the consultancy in 1975 after a full career that started at Hamilton Standard in 1939 and even included a stint at Motorola when Six Sigma was being formed, was: “Talk to the parts rather than the engineers.” Which sounds not unlike CSI’s Gil Grissom’s “Listen to the evidence.” In both cases, Richard Shainin explains, what is important is the physical evidence. He talks about “deep knowledge of the physical world.” He talks about how there is a tendency for people—in the context of this discussion, let’s say engineers—to jump to conclusions when presented with a problem. For example, if an engine is making a particular noise, the immediate conclusion might be there is a bearing problem. But Shainin says that it might be something else, the tendency to grab for an answer notwithstanding. In the world of Shainin analysis, the objective is to find the “Red X,” a concept that Dorian Shainin established in 1957, based on his understanding of the Pareto Principle (e.g., the 80:20 rule). Although this is a statistically based approach, Richard Shainin says that his father made sure that it was “statistically simple, accessible to people on the shop floor.” And in keeping with the crime metaphor, he observes that once they think they’ve determined what the Red X is (“sometimes it is a single factor, but often it is an interaction among several factors”), they do what’s called “Taking the Red X to court.” In other words, the point is to prove that what is identified as being the culprit—or cause of a problem—really is the right one. (How do they do it? “We make sure we can turn the problem on and off like a light switch. If we can’t do that, there’s something missing.” Another culprit.)

“Our approach is investigate, don’t speculate,” Shainin says, and he explains that the company has developed a series of technologies, or methodologies, that can be applied by people for superior problem solving. He says that there are some common responses that he sees occurring in companies that are far from efficient when problems arise. On the one hand, there’s what he sees many engineers do when faced with a problem: coming up with a design fix rather than understanding the real problem and simply fixing it. He says that in one case there was a starter motor problem, a failure at a rate of one in 3,000. So the engineer made a design change. Shainin suggests that it would have probably have been better to simply figure out what the problem was and then resolve it rather than making such a massive change.

On the other hand, there’s the case where there is a problem and then there are plenty of people assigned to solving it. This all-hands-on-deck approach typically includes a daily conference call with top execs to explain what’s going on; “The people spend most of their time getting ready for the next conference call, not solving the problem.”

“Although we’re engineers and are comfortable working with parts and engineers,” he says, “we have to work with senior management.” They’re the ones who can provide the resources and the support. The firm has had people including Tom LaSorda of Chrysler and Rodney O’Neal of Delphi put through training such that they have been certified as a “Rolling Top 5 Executive,” which essentially means that they have an understanding of the problem-solving methodologies such that they are able to identify the top five problems that a corporation has so they are able to serve as a champion for getting them resolved. (It’s “rolling” because as one goes off the list, another rolls on.) Shainin quips that he sometimes talks to executives who say they believe in the Pareto Principle as related to problems, yet that their “single issues list” contains hundreds of items.

“One of the things my father taught me that I’ve never forgotten is that nothing in the real world ever happens by chance. There’s some set of physics that make it so.”

Shainin and his colleagues are dedicated to discovering just what those things are, case by case.—GSV