Problem Solving Made Easy

Steve Martin "Just fix it. There's too much to do." How many times have you heard something like this only to have a problem get out of control and blow up in your face? This doesn't have to happen. This article defines three types of problems, two types of solutions, and outlines an effective problem solving process that you can use.

One company we know used the "just fix it" approach on a manufacturing process because management said they didn't have time to do anything else. Deadlines kept coming and the product had to go out the door. After three years and several million dollars, the products still didn’t meet objectives. They finally created a problem solving team that was facilitated by a trained problem solving expert. Within two meetings, problems were understood, solutions found and evaluated, and a plan of action put into motion. The problems were finally solved. They could have saved a great deal of time and money if they had used effective problem solving methods from the beginning. Doing it right the first time is still a good idea. Two properly run problem solving meetings solved a three year problem.

What is a problem?
A problem is a condition that's not acceptable. It may involve tangible and/or intangible elements such as people, processes, systems, states of affair, products, circumstances, or any business or personal situation. Here are three common types of problems:

It's Broken: An unsatisfactory change in the status quo. The situation goes from acceptable to unacceptable. Examples are a) something is broken and in need of repair or b) a customer is dissatisfied.

It's Boondoggled: An inability to achieve an expected result. The desired objective is not achieved within acceptable parameters (safety, quality, time, money, or other criteria).

It's Just Messy: There is a lack of clarity. Current understanding is insufficient. People may be confused or concerned about the situation. The real problem may be hidden.

What is a solution?
A solution is a man-made resolution to a problem. Here are two common types of solutions:

Bad: An unsatisfactory solution. The solution is more costly than desired, it creates new problems, or it doesn't last. Someone invariably loses.

Good: A satisfactory solution. The desired objective is achieved within acceptable parameters and it lasts. There is an opportunity for win-win. In spite of the best of intentions not all of our solutions turn out to be good or effective. Fortunately there are approaches that can help you achieve more good than bad solutions.

What is Effective Problem Solving?
Effective problem solving is any method by which problems are solved for a satisfactory amount of time to a satisfactory degree without wasting time and resources. These methods are characterized by the use of systematized tools. One of a number of such methods, called Creative Problem Solving*, was developed over decades of work primarily by people associated with the Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College.

Understanding of the method can help you attack problems much more effectively than traditional methods.

Creative Problem Solving involves three components and six stages. The process may be started with any of the three components. The components and stages are as follows.

1) Understanding the problem: "A problem understood is half solved." A. Einstein. There are three stages within this component.
     a) Mess Finding: Identifying problems in a mess. This process cuts through the fog to find the real problems and opportunities in that messy situation.
     b) Data Finding: Gathering the details and finding the most important. This helps to concentrate on what matters. Clear out the extraneous details.
     c) Problem Finding: Clarifying and stating the specific problem. Just knowing what to work on is half the battle. Often more than one problem is identified.

2) Generating Ideas: The one stage of this component is that of generating new and useful ideas. Tools include the well-known Brainstorming process (Unfortunately, Brainstorming is one of the most widely miss-used creativity tools in existence. Read the article to learn how to do it properly.)

3) Planning for Action: A solution isn't real until it is applied. This systematic process creates action plans from solutions that you find to be the most promising.
     a) Solution Finding: Generate options, select solutions, and develop them.
     b) Acceptance Finding: Consider sources of assistance and resistance. Formulate a specific plan of action.

This problem solving model is effective because of a number of key factors.
1) The model has been honed by decades of research and testing.

2) Each stage allows for the initial generation of ideas and outward searching (divergence) and then brings it all back together with convergence tools. This keeps things from drifting out of control.

3) The systems make it easy for participants to reserve judgment during divergence and use it in a positive manner during convergence. This helps to keep criticism and bias out of the picture.

4) There are dozens of specific tools that participants can use to generate details or ideas and then bring them into useful order. They can be used like a tool kit…the right tool for the particular job.

5) The model keeps the focus on the problem and away from distractions like politics or personalities.

6) You can use only as much of the method as you need.

7) The focused and organized use of effective tools gets to understanding and solutions much more effectively than typical random approaches.

8) The model ends with action to solve the problem.

SUMMARY: Process cuts through barriers to achieve understanding.
Using processes such as Creative Problem Solving allows you to cut through barriers to come to an adequate understanding. You don't need to know it all, just enough to make good decisions. These tools and processes work to stretch the current level of understanding by encouraging new thinking and new combinations. They are useful for solving problems, gathering information, processing that information, and for stimulating consideration of new opportunities. You can use them to solve all three types of problems even the messy ones. Success is enhanced by the use of a skilled practitioner as a facilitator and good team training. A facilitator focuses on process while you focus on content. Consistently superior results warrant the investment in the use of Creative Problem Solving methods. Use effective problem solving methods to solve the difficult (big and/or complex) problems that can put you out of business one at a time or the less-important and/or less-complex problems that will eat your lunch while you’re not looking. Set your priorities carefully and take control of your problems today with systematic methods such as Creative Problem Solving. © 1998 Steven Martin, Business Solutions – The Positive Way

Print page