Problem Solving and Action Planning
The Seven Steps of Action Planning
- Define the Problem(s)
- Collect and Analyze the Data
- Clarify and Prioritize the Problem(s)
- Write a Goal Statement for Each Solution
- Implement Solutions: The Action Plan
- Monitor and Evaluate
- Restart with a New Problem, or Refine the Old Problem
The following is a simple example of the problem solving process in practice: The dairy farm owner notices that the bulk tank weights are lower this week than last week. In the next sections we will go through the seven steps to solve this problem:
Step 1: Define the Problem(s)
Evaluate the situation. Have all possibilities been considered? In this stage, explore all possibilities, ask all involved or interested individuals for their input into identifying the problem. Is there just one problem or are there more?
Our farm owner conducts a thorough investigation in trying to determine why the bulk tank weights are down. He checks with the veterinarian to be sure there is not a contributing health factor. He also has the nutritionist evaluate the ration to be sure they are feeding at the proper level. In addition, he interviews employees who interact with the cows on a daily basis. This is what he finds:
- Standard Operating Procedures are being followed thoroughly in the milking parlor.
- Several substitute feeders found some premixes in short supply. In order to feed the milking cows they had to prepare premixes before mixing the herd rations.
- The veterinarian visits and reports the cows are in good health.
- The nutritionist evaluates the rations and finds them to be appropriate for the various production groups.
The farm owner begins to suspect the problem is a result of variation in the feed ration being fed as a result of different people mixing the feed.
Step 2: Collect and Analyze the Data
Now that we have identified the problem, we collect and analyze data to prove or disprove the assumption that our problem is a result of inconsistent ration. We analyze the situations by asking questions.
- What ingredient(s) in the computer ration is the likely problem?
- What do others (veterinarian, nutritionist, herdsman) see as the reason for the lower bulk tank weights?
- What do the feeders see? How much feed is in the alley when new feed is put out?
- What does test data indicate? Compare the sample analyses of the ration being fed, the ration being eaten by the cows, and the ration left when new feed is delivered.
In our scenario, the farm owner reviews the bulk tank weights and confirms that tank weights are down. Next he checks the cow numbers to see if perhaps these are down. Instead, he finds that cow numbers are up. As he is gathering data from the employees he is reminded that the old feeder left for a new position. He finds that different people have been pitching in to mix the feed ration. The owner begins to suspect that the cow's daily rations are not being made consistently. He reviews analysis of feed samples at the next three feedings and finds that the variation is beyond the limits for acceptability.
Step 3: Clarify and Prioritize the Problem(s)
If there is more than one problem, you will need to prioritize the problems so you can focus on the most important problems first. Ask the following questions to help you sort the problems with the higher priority issues at the top of the list.
- Which problem could result in negative consequences in terms of cow or employee health?
- Are any of the problems putting the operation in danger of being in noncompliance with regulations?
- Which problems have the greatest impact on the long-term economic stability of the operation?
- Which problems have short-term impact on the stability of the operation?
In this case we only have one problem — lack of a consistent ration so prioritization is not necessary.
Step 4: Write a Goal Statement for Each Solution
The next step in the process is setting S.M.A.R.T. goals, or goals that are:
- S - Specific
- M - Measurable
- A - Achievable
- R - Relevant
- T - Timely
The team needs to go through the problems that have been identified and evaluate them for each of these items. If all the goals that have been set are S.M.A.R.T. goals, great — you are ready to move on to Monitoring Progress. Otherwise, work with the team to make the necessary adjustments to make the goals S.M.A.R.T.
S - Specific
Specific goals are clear and focused, not broad, ambiguous, or general. Specific goals provide specific information on the behaviors that are associated with the goal. These goals indicate who will do what, when and how.
- Example of a goal that is not specific - "The advisory team will improve Pleasantview Dairy's profitability."
- Example of a specific goal - "Employees of Pleasantview Dairy will lower feed costs by producing high-quality forages (RFV>125), having forage equipment in top working order by May 1, storing the first crop of hay silage by May 25, and continuing to harvest at 31-day intervals throughout the growing season."
M - Measurable
Measurable goals provide a measurable indicator of success, so that it becomes easy to monitor progress and determine when success has been attained. Measurements of success may be quantified with numbers or a simple yes/no determination.
- Example of a goal that is not measurable - "Employees of Pleasantview Dairy will improve feed quality."
- Example of a measurable goal - "Employees of Pleasantview Dairy will increase the average relative feed value from 100 to greater than 140 for all hay silage stored this summer" or "All ingredients in the TMR will be weighed using the electronic scales and delivered to the feed bunk by 10:00 a.m."
A - Achievable
Achievable goals are realistic, and well within the abilities, responsibilities and resources of the management and staff. This does not mean that goals must be easy to achieve. Every effort should be made to reach a higher level of performance. Sometimes "stretch" goals can encourage someone to step out of their comfort zone and tackle tasks in a new, challenging, yet achievable way that results in overall improvement for the operation.
- Example of a goal that is not achievable - "Milk yields will exceed x amount," where x is beyond the limitations for the breed of cattle, facilities and management of the operation.
- Example of an achievable goal - "Farm employee x will mix feed ingredients accurately (wet feed less than 5 percent and dry feed less than 1 percent error) and deliver it to the cows by 10:00 a.m."
R - Relevant
A relevant goal is appropriate to a person who will be attempting to achieve it and to the overall goals and objectives of the farm.
- Example of a goal that is not relevant - "All feed will be delivered to the cows by 10:00 a.m." This goal is easy enough to measure and achieve, but doesn't do anything to ensure the quality of the feed.
- Example of a relevant goal - "Farm staff will improve milk production and lower feed waste by assuring that the computed ration is fed to the cows accurately, in the proper amounts and by 10:00 a.m. each morning."
T - Timely
The attainment of a goal should not be open-ended, but set for a specific time. As much as possible, the exact date the goal is to be achieved should be determined. When a goal has a deadline, it provides a measurable point and speeds progress toward critical goals. Employees will generally put more emphasis on goals that have specific deadlines than on those for which no time for measurement has been established.
- Example of a goal that is not timely - "We will increase milk sold per worker to 1.2 million pounds."
- Example of a timely goal - "We will increase milk sold per worker to 1.2 million pounds by July 1 of next year."
Now, back to our example - an appropriate S.M.A.R.T. goal for this situation would be to write a standard operating procedure (SOP) by tomorrow evening's feeding so that everyone that is assigned to feed the cows unexpectedly can easily follow the steps and assure that the cows are fed correctly twice daily, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Step 5: Implement Solutions - The Action Plan
Step five is to write an action plan that addresses the problems. An action plan is written so that any employee can do the task successfully alone and is followed much like a recipe. It converts the goal or plan into a people process. It has three essential parts:
- Based on the goal the action plans answers five questions - What? When? How? Where? Who?
- Lists Resources
- Lists Potential Barriers
The example below applies these steps to our sample problem. Some of the steps in the action plan are obvious.
- What? - Feed the cows correctly twice a day.
- When? - By tomorrow night.
- How? - The written SOP.
Some questions still need answers in the action plan:
- Where? - Feed is to be mixed in the feed wagon using the green tractor on the concrete pad by the commodity bins next to the silos. The feed is then to be fed to the cows in lots 2, 3, and 4 twice daily, at 6AM and 6 PM.
- Who? - To be assigned by the herdsman until a new feeder is hired and trained.
- Ask the herdsman for help if any questions arise.
- The feeds are in the feed storage area and will be replaced as they are used.
- The tractor and mixing wagon are in the shed by the feed storage.
- The feeder is authorized to order feed or ask the office to do so.
- The feeder can spend up to $300 to correct problems when the office is closed and should get parts on account at Dickerson's Equipment.
- Depleted feeds in silos or bins.
- Tractor is in use somewhere else.
- Broken equipment.
- Sick employees.
- Cows in the wrong lot.
- Scales broken.
You will want to post an alternative plan for each of these contingencies.
Step 6: Monitor and Evaluate
Our next step in the problem solving process is to design a method for monitoring the outcome. The method we select should assess whether the goal and action plan corrects the problem. In addition, a well-designed monitoring method will help the team to determine when the action plan needs to be improved.
A team of professionals should not spend much time going over numerous data sets. They should have simple spreadsheets or graphs that tell how well the action plan is working and move on to bigger problems. Most teams need a short list of key parameters related to goals that they follow each meeting. An extensive list of production items is provided in the Resource/Special Tools section for ideas. Many teams track summary data from accounting reports, inventories of resources, or other items critical to monitoring action plans.
At each team meeting, the team should receive an update on the progress towards meeting the goals including any difficulties encountered or benefits received. Printed reports, summaries and spreadsheets speed the work of the team and help track progress. As time passes and situations change, the team will need to reevaluate individual goals and action steps as well as eliminate any that are no longer necessary. Add new goals as the need arises.
In our example, there were several components of the monitoring and evaluation process.
- Grab samples were taken and analyzed at each feeding for the next two weeks.
- The herdsman routinely observed the feed mixing process to see that the standard operating procedure was being followed.
- Bulk tank weights were monitored and plotted with cow numbers on a graph on a wall in the parlor office.
Monitoring Tools: Sample Herd Report
Step 7: Restart With a New Problem, or Refine the Old Problem
The problem solving steps are cyclical. If the first cycle is successful the process starts over with a new problem. If the same problem persists, there must be refinement, so the process starts over with refinement of the original problem as more current data is analyzed.
The problem solving process can last minutes or extend to years depending on the difficulty and complexity of the problem being addressed. Some problems will be addressed "on the fly" by the farm owner. Others will require careful consideration by the farm advisory team.