Stop and Think! Solving Problems More Effectively

Leveraging the knowledge and know-how of the people in an organization is a powerful way to make improvements and solve problems. The difficulty is getting this done effectively and avoiding an ineffective committee that creates more problems. In a recent interview for the article ‘System migration attacks skills crisis,’ Daniel Tadie, Manager of Remote Energy Plants, Colorado Springs Utilities (retired) told me that Kepner-Tregoe (KT) was invaluable in doing economic justification and executing their system migration.  
The Kepner-Tregoe processes and techniques are powerful tools to achieve better outcomes. I have personally used KT tools on projects during my career. This article explores the Kepner-Tregoe methods as a tool for automation professionals.
While working for the Rand Corporation in the 1950s, Dr. Charles Kepner and Dr. Benjamin Tregoe conducted research on breakdowns in decision making at the Strategic Air Command. They discovered that successful decision making by Air Force officers had less to do with rank or career path than the logical process an officer used to gather, organize, and analyze information before taking action.   They founded the Kepner-Tregoe company based on their initial research and published a book in 1965, “The Rational Manager.” Kepner-Tregoe provides consulting and training services to organizations throughout the world, helping clients implement strategies by embedding problem-solving, decision-making, and project execution methods through individual and team skill development. 
A fundamental part of KT is an organized sequence set of open questions that basically starts by asking if a challenge is a problem, decision, or something else. Other key elements include asking how important the problem is, who should be involved, and defining a tight border around the problem. It seems simple but this starting point helps to sort out issues before investing too much misdirected time. To provide a better understanding of KT, I’ve outlined some concepts used in the process:
  • Situation Appraisal – Separate a complex situation into manageable parts, set priority, and plan next steps.
  • Recognize Problems – Ask what should be happening and what is actually happening to define deviations.
  • Problem Analysis – Find the “True Cause” of a Deviation.
  • Decision Analysis – Choose a best alternative that meets objectives with manageable risks.
  • Define Standards for Solutions – What must be in a solution.
  • Test Potential Solutions – What can go wrong? What is the probability of this happening?
  • Set Contingency Actions – Minimize Problem Effects
  • Set Controls – Trigger Contingency Actions
I interviewed Geoff Edelman, Director of the Energy Group at Kepner-Tregoe, who has been a KT consultant for over 20 years to learn more about it.   He has worked on many projects involving automation and DCS.
Bill: What is the background on Kepner-Tregoe?
Geoff Edelman:
There are a great many bright people in most organizations, but the common skill set for thinking together when focusing on problems and opportunities often is missing.
The founders of KT recognized that successful people had a thinking pattern that they rely on, whereas a less effective manager might see a problem react to a cause in trying to fix it without identifying the root problem.  More successful managers stop and think. Every day people work on problem solving in the past, decision making in the present, and avoiding problems in the future. Kepner and Tregoe mapped and documented successful methods and processes so that better approaches to finding solutions could be learned and reused.
Fundamentally Kepner-Tregoe is about critical thinking. Most business systems and equipment systems are designed to run on their own. When there is an exception, humans have to get involved. Either they fix problems, or they spend a lot of money unnecessarily.   I find there is a great deal of value to have critical thinking tools available and encouraged to be used. This is a tough business world with changes every day, and people have to maximize their critical thinking capability to be most successful against their competitors.
Bill: What are the barriers to getting people to use KT methods?
Geoff Edelman:
In every business system there is an emphasis on time that is a false god. In other words everybody thinks they have to do things right away and immediately but they always seem to have time to go back and do it again.  Unfortunately, trying to do it right the first time is not always encouraged in business systems.  The time factor is too often seen as the positive consequence - do something now, take an action. Stopping to think and gather information and understand what’s going on is seen as extra work, not seen as productive, not seen as taking action. What should happen is that people stop, think, gather the right information, and ask the right questions before they take an action. What we have to do as consultants is help management teams put out the right kind of encouragement message to give that signal to people.    When problems get to a certain seriousness level on an issue, there should be some triggers that say, stop and think.
Every organization has to plan and take effort to achieve their plan. Critical thinking comes into play every day to make the plan work. Whether it is a hardware system, software system; with any endeavor, people have solved problems and make decisions every day. People have to implement plans and make sure they work right. That is where the KT process fits on a daily basis.
The opposite of using a methodology such as KT is relying on people using their experience, knowledge and intuition independently in different directions, which is not as productive.
Bill: I read that KT methods were used in the Apollo 13 crisis, how?
Geoff Edelman:
The KT process was very thoroughly used in that whole sequence of events from trying to understand what caused the problem to using decision making on how to get the astronauts back. We are still active with NASA and Lockheed Martin in the Shuttle program. If you go back and listen to the tapes of conversations between Houston and the Apollo 13 crew you will hear KT language used. In particular, the decision analysis and the structure of the thinking basically says you have objectives, constraints and purpose of a decision. You look at choices and risk around that decision. The main problem was how to get people back from outer space with limited oxygen and resources. They considered choices and risks around those choices, resulting in taking a number of steps including using a certain trajectory and shutting down other systems.
A lot of times in business decisions it’s the same way - ultimately you have to assess the risks around your choices to get a best balances choice. This is the approach KT teaches.
Bill: How could an organization “put their toe in the water” and try KT?
Geoff Edelman:
The most critical variable is the management team agrees that the way they are approaching business today is not satisfactory and they want to get better. They have to make a commitment. An important concept is that your people are your competitive advantage, and improving their thinking skills makes you more competitive.
Bill: In my experience, that is a pretty tall order but management may be willing to invest in a test case.
Geoff Edelman:
Managers with prior KT experience simply use it. In other cases, management wants to see a demonstration of effectiveness and they try it in a pilot test.
Bill: What does a typical project look like?
Geoff Edelman:
Early on we have to help the client understand the real cost of the way they are doing business today. In that sense you’re helping them characterize repeat problems, failures, and loss of opportunity. A lot of times mangers know there is pain and that there are things costing them, but they don’t know how big they are. Often times our projects start with an analysis step where we are characterizing the cost of doing business today and that is our baseline. This is the “current actual,” and defining the “future should” establishes the goal.
KT works with people to facilitate the improvement plan. Then we support the implementation of the improvements. Our business involves training and facilitating with working groups of in-house people to design a change or improvement. A typical group is a small team under a management sponsor. The small team might have 5-10 people, and it will do a gap analysis to come up with where we are today. How to get there is a “people” issue. You have to coach people in the use of some ideas. You have to come up with new goals and measures. You have to have some skill development. You have to change the performance system so people are incented to work differently.
The KT role is process management versus content management, which comes from the company’s staff.
Bill: Are you just looking at problems?
Geoff Edelman:
No. Part of the critical thinking process approach is Potential Opportunity Analysis - to identify how to gain better outcomes with future thinking. Potential Opportunity Analysis is where you think about the conditions you want to happen and consider how to cause those to happen and capitalize on them.
Bill: What are examples and results of successfully using KT?
Geoff Edelman:
Thompson Tube Operations reduced their annual maintenance shutdown from three to two weeks and supported the implementation of 111 capital projects on time and on budget. Ontario Power Generation found an alternative to rented air compressors that saved over $160,000 annually. Another team there also found ways to reduce their Equivalent Forced Outage Rate (EFOR) by over 2%, contributing $5.2M annually to commercial revenues. DSR Optronics used Problem Analysis to resolve a lingering issue with infrared night vision equipment, thus saving a $25M product line investment.
Bill: How can people learn more?
Geoff Edelman:
KT offers three day training workshops, available to the public, to learn the basics about KT methodologies or KT consultants can present these training workshops onsite. Our Web site,, lists upcoming KT training workshops, case studies, as well as upcoming webcasts and other valuable resources about the KT process.
Thoughts & Comments
In my experience, there is great value in learning and applying techniques such as KT. These methods are particularity valuable to harness the power of a group to solve problems and create improvements.  
Do you have experiences with problem solving tools and methods to share? Use the “Feedback” link below to share your experiences with our editors.

About The Author

Lydon brings more than 10 years of writing and editing expertise to, plus more than 25 years of experience designing and applying technology in the automation and controls industry. 

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