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Have you ever found yourself pulling your hair out while trying to find the root cause of a problem? Do you find yourself going at the challenge without a lot of structure to the problem-solving effort? There are many tools available to us, but sometimes we just forget what they are or how they work, and we struggle through — sometimes never getting to the bottom of the issue.

When it comes to problem solving, there is a whole host of systems out there from Total Quality Management to Six Sigma. These systems can be very intimidating and time-consuming for someone to understand. The cool thing is that inside these complex systems are some easy-to-understand and easy-to-use tools that can apply to everyday troubleshooting and root-cause analysis, and they can be implemented without a lot of classroom work.

One of the simplest tools is the Ishikawa Diagram, or better known as the Fishbone Chart. This is where you draw a diagram that sort of looks like the skeletal remains of a fish — the head at one end and the tail at the other, with a number of bones protruding from the spine. The head of the fish is where you identify the problem or the defect you are fishing for, and the bones are where you land some of the ideas that might lead to the solution.

When used in manufacturing, the bones in the Fishbone Chart tend to take on what is called the six M’s. During your exercise, you can label the bones as Machine, Method, Material, Manpower, Measurement and Mother Nature. On each of these bones, you can ask questions and drive investigations from the M in question.

Let’s say you are having an issue with consistently proofing a loaf of bread to the correct dimensions and the simple answer is eluding you and your team. In using this Fishbone Chart and the six M’s, you would start with the topic of Machine and ask questions like, “Are we running the right speed and do we have the right temperatures?” A lot of times we assume we have this in order, but when you use this process, you can uncover things you might normally pass over.

When it comes to Method, ask yourself, ”Were the ingredients all in the mixer, or was the correct sequence of mixing applied in all cases?” For Material, “Were all of the ingredients within specification and within code date? Could there have been a defect?”

Under Manpower,  try to answer these questions: “Did we have the right people on the job? Were they properly trained? Did they have all of the tools and information they needed to get the job done correctly?”

They always say that Measurement drives improvement, so, “Did we have the right targets in place and did we measure to those targets correctly? Could we have referenced the wrong parameters for the particular product?” And finally, “Can we blame it on Mother Nature, or the environment we are working in? Is there something different about the weather, bakery conditions or atmospheric conditions in the product zone that could have caused a problem?”

When you go through this process and troll for the answers, you are more likely to catch the true root cause and land on a solution that not only corrects what you are dealing with today, but might prevent a future problem from floating to the surface.