Problem Solving - 3 Basic Steps

Mark Galley

Don't Complicate it

Solving problems at work can be confusing. With a variety of different tools, it’s common for people in the same company to use different approaches and different terminology. This makes problem solving problematic. It shouldn’t be.

Some companies use 5-Why, some use Fishbone diagrams, and some categorize incidents into generic buckets like "human error" and "procedure not followed." Some problem-solving methods have 6 steps, some have 8 steps, and some have 14 steps. It’s easy to understand how employees get confused.

6-sigma is a widely recognized tool. It has 5 steps with its own acronym - DMAIC. The steps are define, measure, analyze, improve and control. The first two steps define and measure the problem. The third step is the analysis. And the fourth and fifth steps, improve and control, are about solutions.

3 Basic Steps of Problem Solving

The level of detail within a problem changes based on the magnitude of an issue, but the basic steps of problem solving remain the same regardless of the type of problem. As the name suggests, problem-solving starts with a problem. It ends with solutions. And the step in the middle is the analysis.

Step 1. Problem

A complete problem definition has several different questions: What is the problem? When did it happen? And where did it happen and what was the total impact to each of the organization’s overall goals? The traditional approach of writing a problem description as a few sentences doesn’t necessarily capture the specific, quantitative information needed to thoroughly understand an issue.

Step 2. Analysis

This step explains why the problem occurred, but approaches to this step vary widely. There is, however, one method that explains how and why things happen. It works for any type of problem and it works across industries. It works for large and small issues. It is the scientific method – evidence based cause-and-effect. No problems fall outside the domain of the scientific method. Many mistakenly believe cause-and-effect is too simple for complex issues. But cause-and-effect applies to all issues.

Just as there are different problem-solving tools there are also different diets. Regardless of the diet, losing excess body fat requires a person to burn more calories than they digest. The basics of physics, chemistry and biology don’t change. The conservation of energy law applies to all diets, just like it applies to all powerplants and refineries. It doesn’t change. Similarly, the scientific method doesn’t change from problem to problem. It explains all problems.

Step 3. Solutions

Solutions are the specific actions to prevent future problems. Both short term and long-term solutions can be identified from a clear, accurate and thorough analysis. It also important for people in to understand that all the causes don’t have to be solved. Most people believe that 15 causes require 15 solutions. This is not true.

These steps are simple, but they’re not necessarily what everyone does. Many organizations jump directly to solutions after identifying the problem. The analysis step gets neglected. A clear explanation of a problem is essential for uncovering solution options.

Three Steps for the Frontline and Executives

The 3-steps work well for frontline people dealing with day-to-day issues. The steps seem simple and match the basics of troubleshooting. Facilitators who lead comprehensive investigations can also use the same 3 steps. The problem must be clearly defined, the analysis should begin basic, but expand into as much detail as needed to thoroughly explain the issue. The solutions step is where the recommendations come in to prevent similar issues from occurring.

The 3 steps are the same for management and executives too. The problems they face may have a larger impact, but the steps are the same. The problem still needs to be clearly defined (MBAs would call this a gap analysis or business case). It still needs to be thoroughly explained and actions need to be taken to mitigate risk to ensure goals are met.

Three Steps for Conducting, Documenting and Presenting a Problem

These 3 steps provide the framework for conducting the investigation. There is no question about where to start - Step 1. The 3-steps are also the order for documenting an issue in a written report, an investigation file or a slide deck. Sections can be labeled problem, analysis, solutions. The 3-steps provide the structure for presenting and communicating the incident to others across the organization as lessons learned.

Re-Focus on the Basics – They Don’t Change

Problem solving in your company should not be complicated and confusing. It should be clear and simple. The problems you face may be complex, but your approach shouldn’t be. The scientific method is the basis for explaining a problem. It works on the farm and it works in the city. It works for the cancer researcher and it works for the auto mechanic. It works for explaining safety incidents, production losses and equipment failures. People obviously find new and improved appealing, but the basics are old and consistent. The scientific method doesn’t change.

Learn more about how to improve the way your organization explains and prevents problems.

Start Solving Problems

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