- Miles Anthony Smith
The Ultimate Problem-Solving Process Guide: 31 Steps and Resources
Updated: Jan 24
GOT CHALLENGES WITH YOUR PROBLEM-SOLVING PROCESS? ARE YOU FRUSTRATED?
prob·lem-solv·ing noun -the process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But in reality problem-solving is hard. It's almost always more complex than it seems. That's why problem-solving can be so frustrating sometimes. You can feel like you’re spinning your wheels, arguing in circles, or just failing to find answers that actually work. And when you've got a group working on a problem, it can get even muddier…differences of opinions, viewpoints colored by different backgrounds, history, life experiences, you name it. We’re all looking at life and work from different angles, and that often means disagreement. Sometimes sharp disagreement. That human element, figuring out how to take ourselves out of the equation and make solid, fact-based decisions, is precisely why there’s been so much written on problem-solving. Which creates its own set of problems. Whose method is best? How can you possibly sift through them all? Are we to have one person complete the entire problem-solving process by themselves or rely on a larger team to find answers to our most vexing challenges in the workplace? Today, we’re going to make sense of it all. We’ll take a close look at nine top problem-solving methods. Then we’ll grab the best elements of all of them to give you a process that will have your team solving problems faster, with better results, and maybe with less sharp disagreement. Ready to dive in? Let’s go!
9 PROFITABLE PROBLEM-SOLVING TECHNIQUES AND METHODS
While there are loads of methods to choose from, we are going to focus on nine of the more common ones. You can use some of these problem-solving techniques reactively to solve a known issue or proactively to find more efficient or effective ways of performing tasks. If you want to explore other methods, check out this resource here. A helpful bit of advice here is to reassure people that you aren’t here to identify the person that caused the problem. You’re working to surface the issue, solve it and make sure it doesn’t happen again, regardless of the person working on the process. It can’t be understated how important it is to continually reassure people of this so that you get unfiltered access to information. Without this, people will often hide things to protect themselves. After all, nobody wants to look bad, do they? With that said, let’s get started...
1.CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING (CPS)
Alex Osborn coined the term “Creative Problem Solving” in the 1940s with this simple four-step process:
Clarify: Explore the vision, gather data, and formulate questions.
Ideate: This stage should use brainstorming to generate divergent thinking and ideas rather than the random ideas normally associated with brainstorming.
Develop: Formulate solutions as part of an overall plan.
Implement: Put the plan into practice and communicate it to all parties.
2. APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY
Source: http://www.davidcooperrider.com/ai-process/ This method seeks, first and foremost, to identify the strengths in people and organizations and play to that “positive core” rather than focus our energies on improving weaknesses. It starts with an “affirmative topic,” followed by the “positive core (strengths).” Then this method delves into the following stages:
Dream (visioning the future)
Design (strategic purpose)
Destiny (continuous improvement)
This method simply suggests that we ask “Why” at least five times during our review of the problem and in search of a fix. This helps us dig deeper to find the the true reason for the problem, or the root cause. Now, this doesn’t mean we just keeping asking the same question five times. Once we get an answer to our first “why”, we ask why to that answer until we get to five “whys”.
Using the “five whys” is part of the “Analyze” phase of Six Sigma but can be used with or without the full Six Sigma process.
Review this simple Wikipedia example of the 5 Whys in action:
The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
Why? - The battery is dead. (First why)
Why? - The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)
Why? - The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)
Why? - The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)
Why? - The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)
4. LEAN SIX SIGMA (DMAIC METHOD)
While many people have at least heard of Lean or Six Sigma, do we know what it is? Like many problem-solving processes, it has five main steps to follow.
Define: Clearly laying out the problem and soliciting feedback from those who are customers of the process is necessary to starting off on the right foot.
Measure: Quantifying the current state of the problem is a key to measuring how well the fix performed once it was implemented.
Analyze: Finding out the root cause of the problem (see number 5 “Root Cause Analysis” below) is one of the hardest and least explored steps of Six Sigma.
Improve: Crafting, executing, and testing the solution for measureable improvement is key. What doesn’t get implemented and measured really won’t make a difference.
Control: Sustaining the fix through a monitoring plan will ensure things continue to stay on track rather than being a short-lived solution.
5. ROOT CAUSE ANALYSIS
Compared to other methods, you’ll more often find this technique in a reactive problem-solving mode, but it is helpful nonetheless. Put simply, it requires a persistent approach to finding the highest-level cause, since most reasons you’ll uncover for a problem don’t tell the whole story.
Most of the time, there are many factors that contributed to an issue. The main reason is often shrouded in either intentional or unintentional secrecy. Taking the time to drill down to the root of the issue is key to truly solving the problem.
6. DEMING-SHEWHART CYCLE: PLAN-DO-CHECK-ACT (PDCA)
Named for W. Edwards Deming and Walter A. Shewhart, this model follows a four-step process:
Plan: Establish goals and objectives at the outset to gain agreement. It’s best to start on a small scale in order to test results and get a quick win.
Do: This step is all about the implementation and execution of the solution.
Check: Study and compare actual to expected results. Chart this data to identify trends.
Act/Adjust: If the check phase showed different results, then adjust accordingly. If worse than expected, then try another fix. If the same or better than expected, then use that as the new baseline for future improvements.
While this is named “8D” for eight disciplines, there are actually nine, because the first is listed as step zero. Each of the disciplines represents a phase of this process. Its aim is to implement a quick fix in the short term while working on a more permanent solution with no recurring issues.
Prepare and Plan: Collecting initial information from the team and preparing your approach to the process is a necessary first step.
Form a Team: Select a cross-functional team of people, one leader to run meetings and the process, and one champion/sponsor who will be the final decision-maker.
Describe the Problem: Using inductive and deductive reasoning approaches, lay out the precise issue to be corrected.
Interim Containment Action: Determine if an interim solution needs to be implemented or if it can wait until the final fix is firmed up. If necessary, the interim action is usually removed once the permanent solution is ready for implementation.
Root Cause Analysis and Escape Point: Finding the root of the issue and where in the process it could’ve been found but was not will help identify where and why the issue happened.
Permanent Corrective Action: Incorporating key criteria into the solution, including requirements and wants, will help ensure buy-in from the team and your champion.
Implement and Validate the Permanent Corrective Action: Measuring results from the fix implemented validates it or sends the team back to the drawing board to identity a more robust solution.
Prevent Recurrence: Updating work procedure documents and regular communication about the changes are important to keep old habits in check.
Closure and Team Celebration: Taking time to praise the team for their efforts in resolving the problem acknowledges the part each person played and offers a way to move forward.
8. ARMY PROBLEM SOLVING PROCESS
The US Army has been solving problems for more than a couple of centuries, so why not take a look at the problem-solving process they’ve refined over many years? They recommend this five step process:
Identify the Problem: Take time to understand the situation and define a scope and limitations before moving forward.
Gather Information: Uncover facts, assumptions, and opinions about the problem, and challenge them to get to the truth.
Develop Screening and Evaluation Criteria:
Five screening items should be questioned. Is it feasible, acceptable, distinguishable, and complete?
Evaluation criteria should have these 5 elements: short title, definition, unit of measure, benchmark, and formula.
Generate, Analyze, and Compare Possible Solutions: Most fixes are analyzed, but do you compare yours to one another as a final vetting method?
Choose a Solution and Implement: Put the fix into practice and follow up to ensure it is being followed consistently and having the desired effect.
9. HURSON'S PRODUCTIVE THINKING MODEL
Tim Hurson introduced this model in 2007 with his book, Think Better. It consists of the following six actions.
Ask "What is going on?": Define the impact of the problem and the aim of its solution.
Ask "What is success?": Spell out the expected outcome, what should not be in fix, values to be considered, and how things will be evaluated.
Ask "What is the question?": Tailor questions to the problem type. Valuable resources can be wasted asking questions that aren’t truly relevant to the issue.
Generate answers: Prioritize answers that are the most relevant to solutions, without excluding any suggestion to present to the decision-makers.
Forge the solution: Refine the raw list of prioritized fixes, looking for ways to combine them for a more powerful solution or eliminate fixes that don’t fit the evaluation criteria.
Align resources: Identify resources, team, and stakeholders needed to implement and maintain the solution.
STEAL THIS THOROUGH 8-STEP PROBLEM-SOLVING PROCESS
Now that we’ve reviewed a number of problem-solving methods, we’ve compiled the various steps into a straightforward, yet in-depth, step-by-step process to use the best of all methods.
1. DIG DEEP: IDENTIFY, DEFINE, AND CLARIFY THE ISSUE
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” you might say.
This is true, but we often forget the fundamentals before trying to solve a problem. So take some time to gain understanding of critical stakeholder’s viewpoints to clarify the problem and cement consensus behind what the issue really is.
Sometimes it feels like you’re on the same page, but minor misunderstandings mean you’re not really in full agreement.. It’s better to take the time to drill down on an issue before you get too far into solving a problem that may not be the exact problem. Which leads us to…
2. DIG DEEPER: ROOT CAUSE ANALYSIS
This part of the process involves identifying these three items:
Why did it happen?
What process do we need to employ to significantly reduce the chances of it happening again?
You’ll usually need to sort through a series of situations to find the primary cause. So be careful not to stop at the first cause you uncover. Dig further into the situation to expose the root of the issue. We don’t want to install a solution that only fixes a surface-level issue and not the root. There are typically three types of causes:
Physical: Perhaps a part failed due to poor design or manufacturing.
Human error: A person either did something wrong or didn’t do what needed to be done.
Organizational: This one is mostly about a system, process, or policy that contributed to the error.
When searching for the root cause, it is important to ensure people that you aren’t there to assign blame to a person but rather identify the problem so a fix can prevent future issues.
3. PRODUCE A VARIETY OF SOLUTION OPTIONS
So far, you’ve approached the problem as a data scientist, searching for clues to the real issue. Now, it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open, in case you run across a fix suggested by one of those involved in the process failure. Because they are closest to the problem, they will often have an idea of how to fix things. In other cases, they may be too close, and unable to see how the process could change.
The bottom line is to solicit solution ideas from a variety of sources, both close to and far away from the process you’re trying to improve.
You just never know where the top fix might come from!
4. FULLY EVALUATE AND SELECT PLANNED FIX(ES)
Evaluating solutions to a defined problem can be tricky since each one will have cost, political, or other factors associated with it. Running each fix through a filter of cost and impact is a vital step toward identifying a solid solution and hopefully settling on the one with the highest impact and low or acceptable cost.
Categorizing each solution in one of these four categoriescan help teams sift through them:
High Cost/Low Impact: Implement these last, if at all, since they are expensive and won’t move the needle much.
Low Cost/Low Impact: These are cheap, but you won’t get much impact.
High Cost/High Impact: These can be used but should be second to the next category.
Low Cost/High Impact: Getting a solid “bang for your buck” is what these fixes are all about. Start with these first.
5. DOCUMENT THE FINAL SOLUTION AND WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE
Formalize a document that all interested parties (front-line staff, supervisors, leadership, etc.) agree to follow. This will go a long way towards making sure everyone fully understands what the new process looks like, as well as what success will look like.
While it might seem tedious, try to be overly descriptive in the explanation of the solution and how success will be achieved. This is usually necessary to gain full buy-in and commitment to continually following the solution. We often assume certain things that others may not know unless we are more explicit with our communications.
6. SUCCESSFULLY SELL AND EXECUTE THE FIX
Arriving at this stage in the process only to forget to consistently apply the solution would be a waste of time, yet many organizations fall down in the execution phase. Part of making sure that doesn’t happen is to communicate the fix and ask for questions multiple times until all parties have a solid grasp on what is now required of them.
One often-overlooked element of this is the politics involved in gaining approval for your solution. Knowing and anticipating objections of those in senior or key leadership positions is central to gaining buy-in before fix implementation.
7. RINSE AND REPEAT: EVALUATE, MONITOR, AND FOLLOW UP
Next, doing check-ins with the new process will ensure that the solution is working (or identity if further reforms are necessary). You’ll also see if the measure of predefined success has been attained (or is making progress in that regard).
Without regularly monitoring the fix, you can only gauge the success or failure of the solution by speculation and hearsay. And without hard data to review, most people will tell their own version of the story.
8. COLLABORATIVE CONTINGENCIES, ITERATION, AND COURSE CORRECTION
Going into any problem-solving process, we should take note that we will not be done once the solution is implemented (or even if it seems to be working better at the moment). Any part of any process will always be subject to the need for future iterations and course corrections. To think otherwise would be either foolish or naive.
There might need to be slight, moderate, or wholesale changes to the solution previously implemented as new information is gained, new technologies are discovered, etc.
14 FRUITFUL RESOURCES AND EXERCISES FOR YOUR PROBLEM-SOLVING JOURNEY
Want to test your problem-solving skills?
Take a look at these twenty case study scenario exercises to see how well you can come up with solutions to these problems.
Still have a desire to discover more about solving problems?
Check out these 14 articles and books...
1. THE LEAN SIX SIGMA POCKET TOOLBOOK: A QUICK REFERENCE GUIDE TO NEARLY 100 TOOLS FOR IMPROVING QUALITY AND SPEED
This book is like a Bible for Lean Six Sigma, all in a pocket-sized package.
2. SOME SAGE PROBLEM SOLVING ADVICE
The American Society for Quality has a short article on how it’s important to focus on the problem before searching for a solution.
3. THE SECRET TO BETTER PROBLEM SOLVING: HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW
Wondering if you are solving the right problems? Check out this Harvard Business Review article.
4. PROBLEM SOLVING 101: A SIMPLE BOOK FOR SMART PEOPLE
Looking for a fun and easy problem-solving book that was written by a McKinsey consultant? Take a look!
5. THE BASICS OF CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING – CPS
If you want a deeper dive into the seven steps of Creative Problem Solving, see this article.
6. APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY: A POSITIVE REVOLUTION IN CHANGE
Appreciative Inquiry has been proven effective in organizations ranging from Roadway Express and British Airways to the United Nations and the United States Navy. Review this book to join the positive revolution.
7. PROBLEM SOLVING: NINE CASE STUDIES AND LESSONS LEARNED
The Seattle Police Department has put together nine case studies that you can practice solving. While they are about police work, they have practical application in the sleuthing of work-related problems.
8. ROOT CAUSE ANALYSIS: THE CORE OF PROBLEM SOLVING AND CORRECTIVE ACTION
Need a resource to delve further into Root Cause Analysis? Look no further than this book for answers to your most vexing questions.
9. SOLVING BUSINESS PROBLEMS: THE CASE OF POOR FRANK
This solid case study illustrates the complexities of solving problems in business.
10.THE 8-DISCIPLINES PROBLEM SOLVING METHODOLOGY
Learn all about the “8Ds” with this concise primer.
11. THE PROBLEM-SOLVING PROCESS THAT PREVENTS GROUPTHINK HBR
Need to reduce groupthink in your organization’s problem-solving process? Check out this article from the Harvard Business Review.
12. THINK BETTER: AN INNOVATOR'S GUIDE TO PRODUCTIVE THINKING