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Problem-solving workshop: Step-by-Step

A problem-solving workshop is held by the Agile Release Train and its purpose is to address systematic problems. The workshop that concentrates on identifying the problems, not just addressing the symptoms, is facilitated by the Release Train Engineer and time-boxed to maximum of two hours. What are the six steps of the workshop?

In SAFe® (Scaled Agile Framework for Enterprises®), problem-solving workshop is done during the Inspect & Adapt (I & A) event. I & A  is held at the end of each Program Increment, and it forms the basis for relentless improvement, one of the four pillars of the SAFe House of Lean, and a dimension of the Continuous Learning Culture core competency.

During the three parts of I & A event (PI System Demo, Quantitative and Qualitative measurement, and Retrospective and problem-solving workshop), the ART demonstrates and evaluates the current state of the solution and teams reflect and identify improvement backlog items. In this article we are going to concentrate on the last part of the event, problem-solving workshop, during which teams systematically address the larger impediments that are limiting velocity.

Problem-solving workshop consists of 6 steps

Step 1: Agree on the problem to solve

Clearly stating the problem is key to problem identification and correction. It enables more focused investigation, time-saving, and avoids ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach. On the other hand, a problem that is not well defined, may result in failure to reach the proper countermeasure. To identify and agree on the problem to solve, the teams should spend a few minutes clearly stating the problem, highlighting the ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, and ‘impact’ as succinctly as they can.

Step 2: Apply root-cause analysis and 5 whys

The Root-cause analysis and the ‘5 Whys’ technique is used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. It helps to avoid assumptions and logic traps, trace the chain of causality in direct increments from the effect to a root cause.

The root cause analysis (fishbone or Ishikawa) diagram features 5 main ‘bones’ that represent typical sources of problems in development (tools, people, program, process, environment). Team members then brainstorm causes that they think contribute to the problem to be solved and group them into these categories. Once a cause is identified, its root cause is explored with the 5 Whys technique. By simply asking ‘why’ multiple times, the cause of the previous cause is uncovered, and added to the diagram. The process stops once a suitable root cause has been identified and the same process is then applied to the next cause (© Scaled Agile, Inc.).

Step 3: Identify the biggest root-cause using Pareto analysis

Team uses Pareto analysis (or 80/20 rule) to narrow down the number of actions that produce the most significant overall effect. It is based on the principle that 20% of root causes can cause 80% of problems and it has proved useful where many possible sources and actions are competing. Once the team writes down all the causes-of-causes, they identify the biggest root-cause using dot-voting – every team member has five dots on its disposal, and he can allocate them to one or more items he thinks are most problematic. Then they summarize votes in Pareto chart that shows collective consensus on the most significant root-cause.

Step 4: Restate the new problem for the biggest root-cause

Team picks the most voted item from Pareto chart. They restate it clearly as a problem and add economic impact of the problem to the description.

Step 5: Brainstorm solutions

During the brainstorming activity that lasts about 15 – 30 minutes, team brainstorms as many possible corrective actions as possible. The goal of activity is to generate as many ideas as possible, without criticism or debate. Team members should let their imagination soar and explore and combine all the ideas that arise and in the end dot-vote to identify top contenders.

Step 6: Identify improvement backlog items (NRFs)

In the end of the problem-solving workshop, up to three most voted solutions are identified. Solutions are then rephrased as improvement stories and features to be fed directly into the PI Planning event that follows the I & A event. During that event, the RTE helps ensure that the relevant work needed to deliver the identified improvements is planned. This closes the loop, thus ensuring that action will be taken, and that people and resources are dedicated as necessary to improve the current state. In this way, problem-solving becomes routine and systematic, and team members and ART stakeholders can be assured that the train is solidly on its journey of relentless improvement (© Scaled Agile, Inc.).