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Problem Solving Methods

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“It is common sense to take a method and try it.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Over the years I have seen problem solving methods offered in five-step models, six-step models, and in the early 80s I learned from quality circle work an eight-step model. Before I overwhelm you, they are all about the same and provide a systemic approach that can be practiced personally or professionally in a group setting to safely navigate through almost any problem. These methods have become so common that I would be surprised if you haven’t seen them or some version of them. In fact, many of the people I meet immediately recall having been a part of a group that experienced some form of problem-solving methodology.

Here is how it works:

Step One - Define the Problem –

At first glance, it may appear that this is the most difficult part. Once the actual problem is defined, next steps needed to be successful are clear and manageable. 

  • Don’t describe just a symptom.

diggingKeep digging until you have peeled back the layers of symptoms to discover the problem…the real problem. This can take time and it helps to have a skillfully facilitated discussion. If you do this first step properly, the following steps become much easier to navigate. The easy way to think about this first step is to apply the concept of 5-Why. This is a technique in which the group is continually asked why until they have exhausted 5 Whys. While this may frustrate some individuals, the outcome or conclusion at the fifth why is usually different and better than the outcome or conclusion after the first one or two why conclusions.

  • Write the problem out clearly.

The words count here, so be as clear as possible. You will know when you are close to a clearly defined problem definition, especially if you practice this technique liberally.

  • Try to take on problems the group has enough knowledge to solve.

Taking on ‘world peace’ or ‘the African hunger issue’ are certainly worthwhile but probably not something your group can impact directly. But who knows, maybe you can. Don’t be afraid to tackle a big problem, especially with your new tools.

Step Two - Determine the Root Cause –

route closedIf you have defined the problem properly, the root cause should be easy to identify. The problem with this step is that sometimes the root cause appears to be an individual and not a systemic problem. If this is the case, I caution you to identify and consider the system the individual is working within. This takes the problem away from being a personal and/or personnel issue and pushes it to where you can impact change. If your problem-solving leads to removal of people or harm to others, you will soon find people attacking your process. Moving away from the personal to the system root is more difficult than it sounds. People generally seek a convergent solution, or only one point of the root cause. Most problems worthy of group time have a myriad of root causes that live in a system and it requires patience to consider the entire system.

brainstormStep Three - Develop Alternative Solutions – This is brainstorming at its best. When you have done the first two steps properly, this becomes a lot of fun for a group. I say group because over time I have found that I am not as good at brainstorming alone. To do this in a group, you will need just a few brainstorming rules.

    Brainstorming get results

Here are some that work well:

  • First, quantity of ideas is better than quality.
  • Next, no idea is dismissed. This gives room for crazy, off the wall ideas that may not have value in themselves, but when combined with other ideas, may be workable.
  • Display all ideas visually to the entire group.

Step Four – Select a Solution –

Step back and evaluate each of the brainstorm solutions with the team. Choose one or a combination of the ideas that you feel will come closest to eliminating the problem.

Step Five – Implement the Solution –

Make the choices you need to make, build an action plan that includes four elements: 1. What needs to happen first, second, third and so on. 2. Who will do it and what in the solution, 3. When will it be done, 4. Determine in what order the steps need to happen.

Step Six – Evaluate the Outcome –

This is the final step to problem solving and, arguably, the most important. Return to the implementation phase after some time has gone by and check to see if the solution(s) have stuck and/or lasted. This is a chance to share the results with the team and what was learned from your problem-solving experience.

5 (2)


ralph

Ralph Twombly
Priority Learning
Owner/Facilitator


In the 20 years since starting Priority Learning, Ralph has facilitated countless learning experiences and has conducted training for thousands of managers and leaders. With over 30 years of leadership development and organizational development background and work, Ralph continues to build relationships with client companies all over the U.S.

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