We have been trained in a myriad of complex problem-solving techniques, such as the Ishikawa Fishbone, Cause and Effect Analysis, Fault Trees, FMEA, the 5 Whys, etc. Any of these will help get to the root cause of problems.

But do you ever use these tools in the food plant? The answer is usually “no.” And if it is “yes,” it does—with rare exception—consume an inordinate amount of time that may not be appropriate for the large number of issues that you address during a typical work day.

You were sent to a complex problem-solving training session; you learned the methods, but you were not taught their appropriate application. To solve a problem—whether it is complex or routine—you must first select the right tool for the job.

These formal root cause analysis tools can be used for the day-to-day problem solving you face, but at what expense? Let’s do a cost benefit analysis here.

Are you going to assemble a team of food process control experts and launch into a full-blown root cause analysis when an employee injures himself? If you did, you would not accomplish your job expectations in a timely manner. The fact is that these tools were meant for highly complex problems.

So, what tool do you use when day-to-day issues arise in the food plant? Well, that would be your brain. There is information and experience there. All you need is a discipline to retrieve and apply it.

• First, observe or experience the event. Don’t take the event personally. Be objective.

• Second, and the most important step, get you brain working. Use your experience and define the problem based on how it directly affects you and/or your organization.

• Next, develop a short term strategy and implement it. This implementation might be instantaneous or it might take hours.

Did your solution work? No? Perhaps you didn’t define the problem correctly!

If the problem was defined correctly and the short-term strategy was effective, then you must develop and implement a long-term strategy to prevent a reoccurrence of the problem.

If this step is skipped, it will result in an issue that keeps repeating itself with you applying the short-term strategy time and time again. Your long-term strategy could include root cause analysis tools, but it probably won’t for most of the everyday problems you encounter in the food plant.

Whether it is a routine issue or a complex problem, use your experience—and the appropriate problem-solving tool—to dictate the long-term solution. As you develop the solution, take yourself out of the problem and look at it from a distance. Take in the big picture. It will take time to calculate its effectiveness, so be patient.

Learn from the experience and implement effective, preventive solutions to the problem. Don’t overthink it and ramp up with a complex problem-solving tool when the one between your ears will work just fine.

Michael J. Pearsall is food safety business development director, UL-DQS Inc. He has over 30 years of professional experience in food and beverage processing, packaging material manufacturing, product development and implementation, process improvement, quality system development and auditing.