Developing effective, feasible and permanent solutions is the key to process improvement. Problems are identified, root causes are verified, countermeasures are developed and implemented, and permanent solutions are created. Methods used to create countermeasures can dictate whether they will become solutions, or not. Let’s start by understanding the difference between a countermeasure and a solution, then we’ll discuss important factors to consider when developing effective countermeasures. Finally, we’ll explain how countermeasures can become permanent solutions.

One should not confuse the term countermeasure with the term solution. A countermeasure is an action which is designed, developed, and implemented to address a specific, verified root cause. A solution is a state where a problem has been eliminated permanently through the removal of its root causes and the implementation of standardized practices. A problem’s solution could include the implementation of one or more countermeasures, but would also include the implementation of standardization activities to prevent the problem’s recurrence. Therefore, a countermeasure is narrower in scope and an element of a solution.

In ets’ DMAIC method, countermeasures are developed in the Improve step, implemented in Phase 1 of the Control step, and then standardized in Phase 2 of Control. The completion of all activities in Control Phases 1 and 2 would comprise the solution to the problem identified in the Measure step.

Levels of Effectiveness

Countermeasures can be categorized by three levels of effectiveness – strong, intermediate, and weak. Therefore, careful thought must be given to the design and implementation of countermeasures if permanent solutions are the goal.

Strong Countermeasures are those which remove dependence on the person, or operator, to “get it right”  from the decision and action. These often involve engineering solutions and fixes. For example, in cars, the ignition cannot be started if the brake pedal is not depressed. The reason for this is because in older cars, the vehicle would lurch forward when starting the ignition if the transmission were in gear. Other examples in everyday life include drop-down boxes for state names and zip codes, square pegs and round holes, 3-pronged electrical outlets, lightning charger plugs on Smartphones, and turnstiles that only go one way. 

Questions to consider when deciding if countermeasures will be “strong” include:

  1. Does the action force the operator to get it right?
  2. Have poor options been eliminated?
  3. Will the operator be free from thinking about any other options?
  4. Are operators interchangeable so the same result will occur when two different people are using the countermeasure?
  5. Can compliance be achieved with little or no supervision?
  6. Will a new design, device, or technology remove the potential for human error and variation?

Intermediate Countermeasures reduce the reliance on operators to get it right but do not fully eliminate the possibility for human error. These are referred to as “management” controls because they often involve policies issued by a higher authority. Examples of management controls include the increasing of staffing levels to reduce workload and stress, reducing noise levels to minimize distractions, and improving lighting to increase visibility and safety. While these may prove effective to some degree, they still allow for the operator to make a mistake.

Questions to consider when deciding if countermeasures will be “intermediate”  include:

  1. Will the countermeasure help the person to remember the procedure?
  2. Will it improve upon the information needed to do the job?
  3. Does it serve as an instruction or reference to use during the job?
  4. Will the policy or procedure be interpreted the same way by all people using it?
  5. Will the instruction reduce variation when multiple people perform the same job?
  6. Does the countermeasure account for human limitations, such as time, strength, brainpower, and workload?

Weak Countermeasures are designed to change the way a person does the job, but they cannot prevent the person from making a mistake. An example of a weak countermeasure is training. As beneficial as training is, regardless of the training provided, a person still has the choice to do the wrong thing. For example, due to workload, people may look for shortcuts, or easier ways to do a task despite the amount of training received. Also, with high employee turnover, it is difficult to ensure all employees are properly trained and mentored with on-going feedback. Andon devices (a Lean tool) are another example of weak controls. A sign might alert the operator of a danger zone, but the person still has a choice, and can take the shortcut, ignore the machine’s warning, not wear protective clothing or gear, or disobey the speed limit sign on the highway.

Questions to consider when deciding if countermeasure will be “weak” include:

  1. Does the countermeasure focus on educating or informing the person?
  2. Will the countermeasure require ongoing reinforcement to ensure compliance?
  3. Does the countermeasure warn or alert a person to a potential hazard?
  4. Are new guidelines, requirements or rules being created that do not currently exist?
  5. Does the countermeasure examine if the process can be made better?
  6. Will the outcome of the countermeasure be left up to human interpretation?

When considering countermeasures to address root causes, the three levels should be used to evaluate the countermeasure’s potential effectiveness and feasibility. Also, when applying the Work Breakdown Structure and Risk analysis to countermeasures, the three levels of effectiveness should be considered and incorporated into the deliverables, work packages and action plans. 

Incorporating the three levels of effectiveness into the creation of countermeasures can help in selecting and designing the best overall solution for improving and sustaining process performance.