Stir Up Trouble

Creating a path to permanent problem resolution

by V.E. Annamalai

Problem solving often requires us to retrace our steps to figure out where we went wrong. As quality professionals, there are a handful of tools at our disposal to do just that, whether it’s reverse brainstorming or a TRIZ technique that instructs the user to "do it in reverse." I’ve had experience with one such tool, which my former company fondly referred to as "creating the trouble."

At this company, which manufactures grinding wheels, most rejections occur because of different types of physical cracks that appear on the wheel’s surface. The usual way of solving the problem was to guess the reason, take corrective actions based on those guesses and make the wheel again, hoping the corrected recipe will result in the absence of any cracks.

Find, solve, repeat

Despite the best efforts of the staff, such solutions were only temporary, and often the same problem would reappear after some time. So, the same team would find another reason for the crack and prove its worth by running the process again—and again find the solution, at least for the time being.

Finally, we decided if a wheel was cracked, we needed to first try to manufacture the cracked wheel—that is, the team needed to find the ways and means to produce the exact same type of cracked wheel once again.

Only the correct cause would create the same type of crack once again. That way, we would be able to identify the exact reason the wheel cracked in the first place.

Now, all of our team members who want to solve a problem must first prove they can create the problem. This has proved to be a meaningful and easy way to get to the root cause and eliminate the issue for good.

Frit’s a problem

One of our processes involves a frit, which is a glassy material formed by melting various oxides in a rotary furnace, and then pouring the glassy liquid into a tub of water.

This process results in the solidification of the molten material, which forms a substance that can be crushed into powder and added to vitrified bonds to regulate temperature. Frits are normally glassy white or transparent, but we had a problem in which they emerged from the kiln red.

When we attempted to solve the problem with the usual methods, we started looking for traces of iron from rusted portions and examining the purity of the incoming material. When we couldn’t find the answer, we went to our shop-floor team members and asked them how they would turn frit red. They told us it could be done with the addition of furnace oil.

It was such a simple solution, but it did not occur to us. When we tried adding furnace oil to frit in a controlled sample and fired it in a furnace, it turned red. Now, the solution was obvious: We needed to locate the furnace oil leak in the oil line and plug it. The problem was permanently resolved but might not have been had we stuck to the usual causes.

Using this strategy, we have successfully resolved many issues on a permanent basis. So, the next time you run into a problem that’s difficult to solve, try this approach. It just might be worth the trouble.

V.E. Annamalai is professor of mechanical engineering at S.S.N. College of Engineering in Chennai, India. Prior to that, he was vice president technical of Carborundum Universal Ltd. in Chennai, heading R&D and process management. Annamalai earned a doctorate in materials science from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras. He is a member of ASQ.

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