There are various stages to problem solving. We have described those that we see as key in the process, starting with recognising the problem to begin with and defining and labelling it; through to solving it, evaluating it and planning for contingencies. In connection with this, we have introduced certain problem solving tools and techniques that can be used at each stage. This is because some methods work better at different stages than others. The methods are presented in more detail in the section following this one, titled ‘Tools of the Trade’.
So, what are the key stages in the problem solving process?
- Problem Recognition – determining what the problem is
- Labelling the problem
- Conducting a problem-cause analysis
- Optional solutions
- Making a decision based on the best options you have generated
- Developing an action plan to solve the problem
- Evaluating and monitoring your solution to the problem
- Contingency planning and resource examination
This first stage is where you identify the symptoms. You look for facts and analyse data, as well as explore history and human factors such as attitudes, values and reactions (soft data). Symptom identification can be achieved through collecting all kinds of data, including through interviews and focus groups, brainstorming and mind mapping. More on these methods can be found later in this module.
Define and label the Problem (and determine causes)It is important to have a clear definition of the problem otherwise the solutions generated will not work. This is because the solutions you come up with will not necessarily address the actual problem (i.e. ‘the real problem’ or ‘key stone’). For example, if you define the problem as being poor performance by employees, when in fact it is a lack of training or high expectations, the solutions generated to address the problem are unlikely to be effective.
In this stage, it is good to write down some problem statements. Begin by noting the problem and why it is important to solve. Consider the benefits to solving the problem (e.g. costs, consumer satisfaction, employee wellbeing, time, product quality).
Work out stakeholders (both internal and external) and who all the members of the team are. In regards to the problem, think through – who, what, where, when, how and why.
Find the root cause of the problem (do not be caught on symptoms otherwise you won’t find the real issue).
The tools we recommend to help you define the problem and determine the cause (including the root cause) are:
- The 5W’s (and the 5 WHY’s)
- SWOT Analysis
- Mind Mapping
- The Fishbone Diagram (or Cause and Effect Diagram)
- Affinity Mapping
To explore some of these further, see below under ‘Tools of the Trade’.