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Problem Solving (+11-Page PDF, +Video)

To understand problem solving, one must first have a clear definition of what a problem actually is. A problem is simply a gap between an expectation and reality. The most prevalent way people look at this relationship is that they focus on a change in performance, meaning that the reality side of the equation shifts. For example, consider a process that used to be capable of meeting a quality standard. If something changes, the output may start to fall below the target.

The less common way of looking at the relationship between targets and reality is that the expectation side of the equation may be the one undergoing a change. This is commonly the case when an aggressive improvement target is set to capitalize on an opportunity, or a competitor makes a performance breakthrough and the company has to play catch up.

With that definition, then, problem solving is simply the process for closing the gap between what should be and what is. Regardless of how the gap formed, though, the methods used to close it are very similar. 

Problem Solving Structure

Most people tend to approach problems informally, or without any structured approach at all. There are, however, several formal methodologies of problem solving that include:

While each of these approaches has its own specific sequences of activities and situations where they are most effective, they all share several common activities. In each method, you must clearly articulate what the problem is, identify the underlying causes of problems, select appropriate solution(s), and implementing a lasting fix.

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On the surface, the problem solving definition sounds simple. Just close the gap between reality and the way things should be. The problem is that you might not know what the ideal state is. Or, you might not understand how you are currently performing. There are no road signs that tell you where you should be going or where you are. If you get either one of those wrong, you’ll never have a chance to solve a problem.

That is why following the steps of a structured problem solving process is critical to getting the answers you need to narrow that problem chasm.

Problems and Processes

Problem solving falls along a spectrum. It might be addressing a very basic issue, like deciding where to go out for dinner (you expect to have a destination chosen when you get into the car, but the current reality is that you have no restaurant in mind). Problem solving may also address a more complicated challenge such as figuring out how to land a rocket on the moon.

Problem solving gets much less daunting, though, when you realize that all problems are related to a process, or set of processes, at their source. If your find and fix that process, the problem goes away. On occasion, you may even find an easy fix related to this situation. Sometimes an effective process exists, but is not, for some reason, followed. Figure out why it is not being followed, and you can match reality to your expectation with relatively little effort. 

The Zen of Problem Solving

While problem solving is a process and should be rife with facts and data, there is a sort of ‘Zen’ to it. While the actual methodology is rooted in hard science, there is a tremendous amount of ‘art’ to the creative application of the tool.

  1. You never really solve a problem. You just come up with a better current way of doing things. You have to understand that expectations have a way of shifting.
  2. Problem solving is relative. ‘Best’ solutions depend on the goals that success is measured against. What does this mean? For example, whether you emphasize cost or quality more will affect how you go about closing the gap.
  3. Problem solving is part science, part art, part experience, and part luck. That said, the more structure you use, the less you have to rely on chance. You also can eliminate the amount of art and experience that is required by using processes whenever available.
  4. Don’t confuse problem solving with symptom solving. You can do a lot of work to solve a symptom, but the problem will simply pop out sideways if you don’t eliminate the root cause.
  5. You will fail often. If you only focus on simple problems, you’ll have a pretty good success rate, but you’ll have a pretty average company. The more challenging the problems you attack, the more times you will come up with insufficient solutions. The goal is to learn from each failure and get better. You’ll also find that a lower success rate against more important issues is better than a high success rate on those that matter little. This point is very important, but is one of the more difficult mindsets to overcome. People have been conditioned to think that failing is always bad and should be avoided at all costs. Leaving one’s comfort zone, however, is where real progress is made, but it is also where the risk is. There is an anecdote about Thomas Edison. He failed on countless attempts at making the light bulb before realizing success. When asked about it by a reporter, he shot back that he knew a thousand ways not to make a light bulb, and asked the reporter what he knew.
  6. Solve the right problem. Often, efforts to improve precede actually understanding what the need is. If you don’t truly know what is going wrong, you’ll never achieve success.

The Need for a Problem Solving Methodology

Why is there a need for an organized approach to problem solving? Simply put, people are not wired for the task of well-thought out problem solving. Why?

  • We make emotional decisions.
  • We latch onto things that we are familiar with.
  • Our minds ‘fill in the blanks.’ We make up information to fill in spaces. Look at this picture and decide what it is you are looking at. Then click on it and see what your mind filled in. (Hit the ‘Back’ arrow to come back here)
What is this?

What is this?

  • We weight the evidence that supports our theories.
  • We can’t let go of beliefs, even with contradictory information.
  • We are biased based on our skills and background.

This wiring helps us when we need immediate responses. It was developed when we needed to quickly identify and evade sabre-tooth tigers. Figuring out how to eliminate lost files or dings in car doors doesn’t have the same instant response requirement.

So, we overcome this wiring by using a structured approach to problem solving. There are many benefits to not simply ‘winging it.’

  • The structure prevents us from missing steps.
  • Structure is easy to communicate, which supports teamwork.
  • Confidence is higher in solutions that come from structured methods.
  • Perhaps most importantly, a structured approach can compensate for how human nature hampers problem solving. 

Complexity and Risk vs. Structure

The more complex a problem, the more a structured method will help you. Risky problems are also good candidates for structure.

Note that experience can offset the need for some structure, but it increases risk anytime you skip a step. With experience, you can shift the bands in the matrix image in the direction of the yellow arrow. Be careful, though. It is a shortcut. While it saves resources, the best you can do is come up with a solution that matches the one you would have gotten from the full process. It is far more likely, though, that you will come up with a worse solution than you could have by using the full methodology.

Complexity of problem and formality of the problem solving method

Selecting a Methodology

As mentioned in the overview, there are many different formal approaches to problem solving. Practice using the different methodologies and find one that you like. Liking something makes you more likely to use it. You may also find that you like particular methods in specific situations. Don’t feel like you have to limit yourself.

Problem Solving and Continuous Improvement

In continuous improvement, you will find uses for problem solving at every corner. Each time you assess your progress towards your goals, you unearth a great source of problems to solve. Also, any metric that is behind presents a chance to solve a problem. Missed targets are, in fact, one of the best sources of problem solving opportunities. Done right, they represent…

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