Problem solving for beginners – a simple 4 step guide 

If your day is anything like mine you will be inundated with lots of issues, some tiny, some huge. Often the solutions are glaringly obvious – you know the cause, you know how to fix it. But it’s also often that it requires a bit extra time to understand what’s going on and an effective problem solving skill is something that is sought after worldwide, across all businesses and industries.

A job outlook survey in 2022 of thousands of recruiters put problem solving as their key competency, even over team working and communication skills. In fact, 86% of employers will look for problem solving skills on student CVs and many jobs now require a competency assessment which includes problem solving questions. There are problem solving courses popping up online and in colleges and universities weekly. Some simple some much more complex.

In this article we look at the 4 basics of problem solving.

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Generate ideas 
  3. Evaluate and select solutions
  4. Implement and control 

1. Identifying the problem 

How do you know what to fix if you don’t know the problem? This may sound simple on the surface, but what you may think is the problem or the cause may not be entirely true. You may go ahead and try to fix something which isn’t broken.

For example, you may take your car to the garage to fix a bald tyre but the problem maybe that you have poor brakes or the tracking and balancing is out and actually you end up changing your tyre again in half of the time you would normally.

There are a varied amount of ways to do this, yes sometimes it is glaringly obvious what the problem is, you may have a troublesome employee, some equipment maybe in need of a serious upgrade or there isn’t enough time to get something completed. But this is not always the case and requires further time to completely understand a problem.

You can start by listing the problem in detail using something like the 5W 1H method. 

  • What is happening?
  • Where is it happening?
  • Why is it happening?
  • Who is it happening to?
  • When is it happening?
  • How is it happening?

This is allow you to build a picture of the problem.

For example, sticking on the car theme. What – My car won’t start

Where – It happens on my drive

Why – The engine is cold

Who – me

When – in the morning

How – when I turn my key it ticks over but won’t start

From this we can have a better understanding of the problem.

You could also use something called an IS/IS NOT scope analysis. This will help you identify was you should be and shouldn’t be considered within the problem and therefore, in identifying solutions to the problem. This will save time and help you narrow down the problem.

2. Generate Ideas

Once we have a good understanding of the problem, it’s time to generate ideas which will be selected to be implemented which will eventually solve the problem. So where do we start?

Firstly, develop a list of solutions which could potentially be implemented. This it’s what’s called a brainstorming session. It’s great if there are a few people giving their input and a team with a broad range of experience. It is encouraged that no idea should be considered off the table, no matter how far fetched they may seem. This often leads to a train of thought in the group that develops an idea into a workable solution. A watch out for a brainstorming session however is something called ‘groupthink’. This is where the teams ideas become boxed due to the subject of discussion and ideas they would normally think about go awry. So, it’s often a good idea to allow some time for the individuals to think alone or in small groups then come together to discuss ideas that have been raised.

3. Evaluate solutions

Once you have a list of ideas, you need to prioritise which solutions you can implement. You can do this by using something called a prioritisation matrix or PUGH matrix. In short, the list is scored on various subjects which then spits out the highest scoring solution to implement.

As you can see from the example above the subjects are Cost, Resource and Saving. These are then scored on this example 0,1,3,9 but you can score however you like. The reason this numbering in this example is used is to ensure that the solutions are differentiated, as there aren’t too many subjects or solutions.

Once we have the scores, we then need to weight the subjects depending on importance. So cost is a very important factor so we score it low as we don’t want a solution that costs a fortune, such as buying a new car. Once this is completed, hopefully you have your solution!

The next step would be to try out the solution using experimentation. This is fairly straight forward and reverts back to step 1. Does this solve the problem which you identified in step 1. Experimentation is a small trial under the same conditions that would be in normal process, to test if the solution works. The reason experimentation is important is that you can verify the solution before you spend lots of resource implementing the solution to find that it doesn’t work, or only works to an unacceptable degree. When experimenting,. its always best to ensure that the process is as it would be when implemented. It’s easy to micro manage an experiment to such conditions which are unlikely in the real world, therefore giving false results and potentially incorrect implementation.

Hopefully the experiment or trial is a success and you can now move onto step 4.

4. Implement and control

Once you have your idea selected, its time to implement it. Change management is always important in any change of process no matter how small. Most ideas will come from the people who are involved within the process which also makes change management much easier but sometimes it can be more difficult. Check out another article here for tips on change management.

With any solution we need to ensure that it works. The worst thing you can do is implement a solution then walk off without checking in on how it’s working. You can do this by feedback from process users and data analysis. Look at your problem statement. Have you solved your problem?

Sometimes changes often revert back if you haven’t got a control plan in place. If you spend a week implementing a solution you have found it works but then process users start to revert back to the old way because it’s easier, then the problems start to occur again. So what is a control plan?

A control plan is a documented method that describes what will be checked within the process against specified parameters and what to do when these parameters become ‘out of control’. It may look something like this.

As you can see it is clear that we are checking that the solution works. We have a defined set of parameters and we are clear on what to do if the checks are not within those parameters.

So to conclude. Our 4 steps are :

  • 1. Define the problem as clearly as possible and understand the scope.
  • 2. Generate ideas through a list and brainstorming.
  • 3. Evaluate the best ideas for potential solution and trial to ensure we are solving the problem.
  • 4. Implement the solution with effective change management and ensure the solution is maintained through an effective control plan.

One response to “Problem solving for beginners – a simple 4 step guide ”

  1. Sometimes identifying the real problem is the challenge. It may not be what you originally thought. An open mind is essential here as everything needs to be on the table


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