Problem Solving - 3 Basic Steps

Mark Galley

Don't Complicate it

Problems can be confusing. Your problem-solving process shouldn’t make them more confusing. With a variety of different tools available, 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 5Whys, some use fishbone diagrams, and some categorize incidents into generic buckets like "human error" and "procedure not followed." Some problem-solving methods have six steps, some have eight steps and some have 14 steps. It’s easy to understand how employees get confused.

6-sigma is another widely recognized problem-solving tool. It has five steps with its own acronym, DMAIC: define, measure, analyze, improve and control. The first two steps are for defining and measuring the problem. The third step is the analysis. And the fourth and fifth steps are improve and control, and address solutions.

3 Basic Steps of Problem Solving

As the name suggests, problem solving starts with a problem and ends with solutions. The step in the middle is the analysis. 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:

Step 1. Problem

Step 2. Analysis

Step 3. Solutions

But these steps are not necessarily what everyone does. Some groups jump directly to solutions after a hasty problem definition. The analysis step is regularly neglected. Individuals and organizations don’t dig into the details that are essential to understand the issue. In the Cause Mapping® method, the point of root cause analysis is to reveal what happened within an incident—to do that digging.

Step 1. Problem

A complete problem definition consists of several different questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • When did it happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • What was the total impact to each of the organization’s overall goals?

These four questions capture what individuals see as a problem, along with the specifics about the setting of the issue (the time and place), and, importantly, the overall consequences to the organization. The traditional approach of writing a problem description as a few sentences doesn’t necessarily capture the information needed for a complete definition. Some organizations see their problem as a single effect, but that doesn’t reflect the nature of an actual issue since different negative outcomes can occur within the same incident. Specific pieces of information are captured within each of the four questions to provide a thorough definition of the problem.

Step 2. Analysis

The analysis step provides a clear explanation of an issue by breaking it down into parts. A simple way to organize the details of an incident is to make a timeline. Each piece of the incident in placed in chronological order. A timeline is an effective way to understand what happened and when for an issue.

Ultimately, the objective of problem solving is to turn the negative outcomes defined in step 1 into positive results. To do so, the causes that produced the unwanted outcomes must be identified. These causes provide both the explanation of the issue as well as control points for different solution options. This cause-and-effect approach is the basis of explaining and preventing a problem solving. It’s why cause-and-effect thinking is fundamental for troubleshooting, critical thinking and effective root cause analysis.

Many organizations are under-analyzing their problems because they stop at generic categories like procedure not followed, training less than adequate or management systems. This is a mistake. Learning how to dig a littler further, by asking more Why questions, can reveal significant insight about those chronic problems that people have come to accept as normal operations.

A Cause Map™ diagram provides a way for frontline personnel, technical leads and managers to communicate the details of an issue objectively, accurately and thoroughly. A cause-and-effect analysis can begin as a single, linear path that can be expanded into as much detail as needed to fully understand the issue.

Step 3. Solutions

Solutions are specific actions that control specific causes to produce specific outcomes. Both short-term and long-term solutions can be identified from a clear and accurate analysis. It is also important for people to understand that every cause doesn’t need to be solved. Most people believe that 15 causes require 15 solutions. That is not true. Changing just one cause along a causal path breaks that chain of events. Providing solutions on more than one causal path provides additional layers of protection to further reduce the risk of a similar issue occurring in the future.

The Basics of Problem Solving Don't Change

These three steps of problem solving can be applied consistently across an organization from frontline troubleshooters to the executives. First principles should be the foundation of a company’s problem-solving culture. Overlooking these basics erodes critical thinking. Even though the fundamentals of cause-and-effect don’t change, organizations and individuals continue to find special adjectives, algorithms and jargon appealing. Teaching too many tools and using contrived terms such as “true root causal factors” is a symptom of ignoring lean principles. Don’t do that which is unnecessary.

Your problems may be complex, but your problem-solving process should be clear and simple. A scientific approach that objectively explains what happened and why (cause and effect) is sound. It’s the basis for understanding and solving a problem – any problem. It works on the farm, in the power plant, at the manufacturing company and at an airline. It works for the cancer researcher and for the auto mechanic. It also works the same way for safety incidents, production losses and equipment failures. Cause and effect doesn’t change. Just test it.

If you’re interested in seeing one of your problems dissected as a Cause Map diagram, send us an email or call the ThinkReliability office. We’ll arrange a call to step through your issue. You can also learn more about improving the way your organization investigates and prevents problems through one of our upcoming online webinars, short courses or workshops.

Want to learn more? Watch our 28-minute video on problem-solving basics.


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