How To: Problem Solving

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Solving problems is something we expect leaders in an organization to do, but it is a skill often learned through trial and error on the job itself.

In my view, there are four important steps to solving any problem within an organization:

  • Investigation
  • Decision
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation

Let’s look at each of these steps in more detail.

 Investigation

While it may seem obvious to investigate the problem, conducting a proper investigation will make sure that you’re not just addressing symptoms of a problem, that you’re actually going to get to the root cause.

When investigating, I ask myself, “If I fix this problem, will it just come up again in a different form, or is there something more systemic that is causing this problem?” Sometimes, I need to ask myself that question a few times, digging deeper each time, before I am satisfied that I’ve gotten to the root cause of a problem. Solving for the root cause of a problem is a better use of time because you tend to be able to solve the problem once and for all.

Some questions I consider when investigating:

  • Am I listening to everyone affected by this problem? This might include not just managers, but employees and even customers.
  • Am I looking at the right data to diagnose the problem? For instance, if a problem occurs with customer satisfaction, I may dig deeper to look at internal metrics to help pinpoint the root cause of the problem.
  • Have I seen the problem first hand? Sometimes seeing is believing, and looking at a problem from the outside in will reveal a solution that may otherwise be overlooked.

Decision

Once the problem is clear, it’s time to decide on a solution. There may be multiple solutions, each with it’s own trade-offs. I try to do some or all of the following when deciding which solution to pursue:

  • Lay out the solutions on paper or a whiteboard to consider the impact (positive and negative) that each solution could result in.
    • Are there any foreseeable adverse affects?
    • Is there planning necessary to implement the solution?
    • Do we have the resources to make this solution work?
  • Bring all the stakeholders together to be a part of the process.
    • Having everyone feel included and part of the solution can be a key factor as to whether a solution will work.
  • Determine how to evaluate the success of the solution.
    • How do you know you’ve been successful? Sometimes data helps, or customer feedback, but make sure going into your solution that you know what success looks like, and that your plan includes anything necessary to evaluate it’s success.

Implementation

You’ve investigated the problem, identified the root cause of the problem and decided on a solution. If you’ve included the stakeholders in the Decision process described above, you’ve already started down the path to implementing the solution.

Implementing a solution to a problem in a large organization is as much about communication as it is about actions.

  • Do I have buy-in from everyone involved?
    • People are more likely to support a solution they helped decide upon.
  • Do I have a clear plan for communicating the solution?
    • A plan for communication should be clear and include opportunities for questions.
    • Do I have the proper authority to implement the solution?
      • If approval is needed to implement a solution, having a well put together plan will help others understand what you are solving for, what needs to happen, and any costs or other impacts. It’s easier to say yes to something that you have confidence in so make sure your plan builds confidence by anticipating questions ahead of time.

Evaluation

I mentioned the need to evaluate the success of the solution back when deciding upon which solution to pursue. Here are some questions I use when evaluating a solution after it’s been implemented.

  • Did it solve the original problem?
    • Maybe an obvious question, but if it didn’t solve the original problem, I may need to start all over and figure out where I was wrong – did I identify the right root cause? Did circumstances change?
  • What data can I show that the problem has been resolved?
    • Sometimes even the best solutions require tweaking, if you are paying close attention you can make those adjustments without it throwing your plan off course.

Sometimes you have to fix problems quickly, and the outline above certainly has a lot of steps. But if you get in the habit of using these steps – even abbreviated – you become a very thorough and effective problem solver. Good luck!

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