The Eight Fundamentals of Problem Solving

As business leaders we are consequently required to solve problems. But what are the very fundamentals of problem solving?

Read on to find out.

1. Define the Real Problem

This is the biggie. Ensure that you are solving the right problem. Toyota is justifiably famous for its problem-solving savvy in perfecting its production methods. According to Toyota, the key to their method is to spend relatively more time defining the problem and relatively less time on figuring out the solution.

2. Solve the Root Cause of the Problem

Don’t treat the symptoms; solve the root cause of the problem. There are numerous methods to determine root causes—cause mapping, fishbone diagrams, etc. For me, the easiest and most effective is to use the “Five Whys.” Ask a question and to each answer ask. “Why?” again. Doing this for five times should get you to the root cause of the problem.

3. Use a Hypothesis

As happens on the “CSI” television shows, you should make a best guess as to the solution to the problem at the very beginning of your process—define the initial hypothesis. Then test this initial hypothesis by digging deep to determine whether the hypothesis is right or wrong and adjusting the hypothesis as the facts dictate.

4. Get the Facts

Dig deep and get the facts to truly understand the nature of the problem and the possible solutions. Do the analysis to let the facts do the talking instead of gut instinct. As Wharton’s own Peter Cappelli says: “I tell my MBA students that whenever you are going with your gut, you are doing something wrong. In most cases, you can actually figure it out. So you should sit down and figure it out.”

5. Keep the solution simple

Any solution to a problem has to be implemented by your team. So keep it simple. Be able to explain the solution clearly and precisely in 30 seconds. Limit the action items to solve the problem to three. Go for the solution that solves 80 percent of the problem but that is 100 percent implementable by the team—rather than a 100 percent solution that is unlikely to ever be properly implemented.

6. Do not re-invent the wheel

Plagiarism can be good. If someone has a clever idea or way to solve your problem, by all means legally use it. The “not invented here” syndrome is just sheer arrogance.

7. Gain momentum in problem solving

In situations where you have multiple problems to solve (e.g., business turnarounds) pluck the low-hanging but important fruit first. Solve the easy problems. This gives you momentum, shows progress and gives your team confidence.

8. Consider time

With any solution, ensure that you do first what needs to be done first. Also, ensure that the solution can be implemented in a reasonable period of time. Solutions that take longer than a few months will likely fail. The momentum will die out or top management will move on to another “critical issue.”

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