Solving problems: Start with “I don’t know”

By Hugh Alley   

Industry Manufacturing manufacturing performance solving problems training

It begins the process of finding more information.

A manufacturer was having problems with a particular defect. The lead was asked if the part was defective when it arrived at the department, or caused by the department.

“I don’t know” was his reply.

“I think…” or “My guess is…” would have been much harder to challenge. “I don’t know,” showed he wasn’t trying to make up an answer, and wasn’t trying to pin it on someone else. He was just stating the fact.

One way to respond would be to tell him, “Knowing this stuff is your job.” This doesn’t serve the company well, because it doesn’t get to the root of the problem: where do the defects originate?


The response should be, “I wonder how we could find out?” This begins the problem-solving process and leads to forming ideas as more information is gathered.

The lead proposed several ways to get more information, such as asking the crew. He realized he could ask his crew what they had observed, even if it was anecdotal.

The crew started tracking where the defects were first identified and he learned that more than two thirds were found at the point where the parts arrived.

Most of the others were found after one particular operation. This provided clues about where to look.

Looking deeper

He also started looking more closely at the nature of the defects. Defects previously treated as the same were recognized to be two distinct types with different origins. And when he tried one particular fix in the transport process, only a third of the defects were eliminated, instead of the 75% he had expected. This prompted him to look for still other sources.

When we are solving problems on the floor, we often ask questions. Those reporting to us are tempted to provide any answer so that they don’t look bad. But the answer may not be particularly accurate or helpful.

Ask yourself, is this statement a fact, an opinion or a guess?

Of the three, facts are the most helpful. Opinions are the most dangerous because they are formed with so little regard to facts.

Sometimes guesses are helpful, especially when they result in ideas to test. The lead’s guesses led him to test some ideas, which confirmed some, or allowed him to cross others from the list.

“I don’t know” means “I’m ready to learn what is really going on.” It reflects honesty and a willingness to be curious. Both are important for better performance.

Next time you ask a question and the answer is “I don’t know,” consider this a statement you should celebrate.

Hugh Alley is an industrial engineer based in the Vancouver area who helps organizations achieve significant performance gains in delivery, quality and cost in a short time frame. Call (604) 866-1502 or e-mail

This article appeared in the March-April 2020 print edition of PLANT Magazine.


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