Problem solving is a skill. Managers and leaders spend much of their time solving problems and making decisions. The nature of the problems can be small, large, complex or simple and it’s the role of the manager to establish an approach to resolving the problem. Being faced with problems often results in people becoming uncomfortable and afraid, trying to find a solution immediately without analyzing the problem and looking for someone to blame.
Problems occur every day and cannot be escaped. It should be viewed as opportunities to improve systems and relationships within organizations. The tendency to try and find a solution immediately is one of the fundamental mistakes in problem solving as the solution should be founded at the end of the process rather than at the beginning. Using an approach that worked previously can leave you solving the same problem over and over again.
We are born problem solvers and build our confidence when we solve problems. Having a good process and approach to problems can solve them quickly and effectively.
2. Problem Solving and Decision Making Framework
Organisations struggle with inherently the same problems year after year. The lack of a comprehensive and structured process is the reason for this failure. An organized approach using simple principles and a clear defined approach can facilitate permanent solutions. The 7 step problem solving process is an effective problem solving process that consists of a sequence of sections that fit together. Within each section, there are various tools that can be used to work through the problem and find out what is really going on. It is useful to have such a structure to ensure that nothing is overlooked.
Figure : 7 Step Problem Solving Process
2.1 Define/Identify the Problem
At this point, people react to what they think the problem is. Instead, we should seek to understand more about why we think there is a problem. It is imperative to deal with the real problem and not the symptoms.
With input from yourself and others, a serious of questions on the problem should be addressed. Use the 5 Ws and an H to collect statistics on the problem:
a) What can you see that causes the problem
b) Where does it occur
c) When is it happening
d) Why is it happening
e) With whom is it happening
f) How is it happening
At this stage, a problem statement should be developed and written down. This will ensure that you are tackling the actual problem and not a side issue or part of the problem. “A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved”. (Dorothea Brande). Writing the statement will ensure that everyone can quickly understand what the problem is. The problem can be re-phrased as a goal objective. This provides a focus and direction for the problem-solvers that is measurable.
The problem statement should also attempt to have a target date identified and scoped so that it can be realistically tackled.
2.2 Analyse the Problem
In this stage of the problem solving, critical input from people who have noticed the problem and who are effected by the problem should be gathered and sifted. The problem needs to viewed from a variety of viewpoints. Several questions should be asked to gather the required information :
What is the history of the problem? How long has it existed?
How serious is the problem?
What are the causes of the problem?
What are the effects of the problem?
What are the symptoms of the problem?
What methods does the team already have for dealing with the problem?
What are the limitations of those methods?
How much freedom does the team have in gathering information and attempting to solve the problem?
What obstacles keep the team from achieving the goal?
Can the problem be divided into sub problems for definition and analysis?
Understanding where the problem is arising from, its fit in the current development and what the current environments are, is critical when working out if a solution will work or not. The problem definitions validity can be checked here by stepping back and assessing the current situation and what needs to be changed. The cause of the problem should be written down in terms of what is happening, where, when, how, with whom and why.
2.3 Generate Possible Solutions
At this stage, the team and yourself should generate a number of possible solutions. No evaluation of the solutions should occur but rather the effort should be concentrated on generating as many solutions as possible. Various techniques can be used to solve problems.
This is a technique designed to help a group generate several creative solutions to a problem. It is focussed on developing imaginative and innovative solutions. It is a simple means of generating a large number of ideas from a group of people in a short space of time.
A group’s members are presented with a problem and all its details.
Members are encouraged to come up with as many solutions as possible, putting aside all personal judgments and evaluations. “Piggy-backing” off another person’s idea is useful.
All ideas are recorded so the whole group can see them.
Ideas are evaluated at another session.
2.3.2 Reverse Brainstorming
Reverse brainstorming uses a combination of the reversal technique and brainstorming. This technique involves starting with two “reverse” questions:
a) How could I possibly cause the problem rather than How do I solve or prevent this problem?
b) How could I possibly achieve the opposite effect rather than How do I achieve these results?
Brainstorm the reverse problem to generate reverse solution ideas. The ideas should be allowed to flow. No idea should be rejected. The ideas from the reverse problem should now be reversed for the original problem.
2.4 Analyse the Solutions
This stage is where you investigate the various factors about each of the potential solutions. The good, the bad points and other relevant items to each solution is noted. There are several ways to evaluate the chosen solutions, and writing them all down will help the group to choose the best solution to the problem.
a) Making a T-Chart to Weigh the Pros and Cons of Each Idea
The T-chart can be used where team members write down the advantages and disadvantages for each solution. This method will illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of each solution.
b) Develop and Assign Weights to Criteria
All the criteria people are thinking about should be listed and weighted. This way, all group members are clear as to what criteria others are using.
c) Prioritize the Criteria
The next step is for the group to agree on how important these criteria are in relation to each other. For example, is cost the most important criterion, or low resistance by others, etc. The criteria should then be rated in terms of importance. Assign a number to each criterion so that all criteria together total 100.
d) Rate Proposed Solutions Using Criteria
Using the four to six possible solutions, score (on a scale of 1 to 10) each solution against each criteria. Repeat this for each criterion. Multiply this score to the weighting, then add the weighted scores for each solution. This exercise will help compare alternatives objectively.
2.5 Select the best Solution
The various influencing factors for each possible solution is reviewed and solutions are kept or eliminated. The group should be concerned with whether or not the solution chosen solves the problem or just minimizes it. The solution must be workable in relation to the problem. During this step, decisions need to be made. Weighting of the previous step can be used to select the best solutions.???
The T-chart can be reviewed for advantages and disadvantages. The facts and information gathered must be consistent with the proposed solution. Solutions can be voted for and then those can be shortlisted. Shortlisted items can be analysed and further refined and voted on. There is a possibility that no solutions may work. The problem may need to be re-evaluated or generation of solutions may need to be re-visited. This maybe the result of a problem definition that is not well defined.
2.6 Develop an Action Plan
An action plan involves writing down what is going to??? next now that a potential solution is available.. This plan will realise that the solution happens???. The plan can consist of sequential tasks identifying who is doing what, when and the timeline for completion. The following questions should be answered for the action plan :
What is the overall objective and ideal situation?
What is needed in order to get there from here?
What actions need to be done?
Who will be responsible for each action?
How long will each step take and when should it be done?
What is the best sequence of actions?
What training is required to ensure that each person knows how to execute each step in the plan?
What standards do we want to set?
What resources are needed and how will we get them?
How will we measure results?
How will we follow up each step and who will do it?
What checkpoints and milestones should be established?
What are the make/break vital steps and how can we ensure they succeed?
What could go wrong and how will we get around it?
Who will this plan affect ???and how will it affect them?
How can the plan be adjusted without jeopardizing its results to ensure the best response and impact?
How will we communicate the plan to ensure support?
What responses to change and other human factors are anticipated and how will they be overcome?
2.7. Implement the Solution
The solution can be implemented as a “project” using the action plan as the baseline. Tasks should be monitored and reported on. The Gantt chart could be used to monitor this progress. Regular meetings should be held with relevant stakeholders to communicate progress on the solution and advise if any slippages or blockers exist on the “project”. Contingency plans can be devised and implemented to recover from slippages.
2.8. Verify the Solution
Once the solution is implemented, it can be tested be reviewing the normal operation of the organisation. Adjustments may be required to improve the effectiveness of the solution. A lessons learnt document/memo should be created highlighting what changes should be made to avoid this type of problem in the future, considering changes in policies and procedures, and training.
3. Creative Thinking
Effective problem solving requires creativity. Creativity in problem solving process?? sparks new solutions and concepts in changing environments. There are various tools that can be used:
3.1 Six Thinking Hats
This is a tool for group discussion and individual thinking. The technique allows you to look at decisions from a number of important perspectives.
In meetings it has the benefit of blocking the confrontations that happen when people with different thinking styles discuss the same problem.
Each ‘Thinking Hat’ is a different style of thinking.
These are explained below:
This hat requires you to focus on the facts and data available. Review the information you have, and determine what you can learn from it. Look for gaps in your knowledge, and either try to fill them or take account of them.
This is where you analyse past trends, and try to extrapolate from historical data.
Team members state problems using intuition, gut reaction, and emotion. This is a method of harvesting ideas. Also try to think how other people will react emotionally. This method can use post-it notes to allow a quick system of voting, and creates a clear visual cue that creates rapid if incomplete agreement around an issue.
Using black hat thinking, looks at all the bad points of the decision. Team members identify risks and hazards. Decision are looked at to see why it might not work. This is important because it highlights the weak points in a plan. It allows you to eliminate them, alter them, or prepare contingency plans to counter them. Plans can become ‘tougher’ and more resilient. It can also help you to spot fatal flaws and risks before you embark on a course of action.
The yellow hat helps you to think positively and identify with an idea or decision. It is the optimistic viewpoint that helps you to see all the benefits of the decision and the value in it.
The Green Hat allows you to develop creative and new ideas solutions to a problem. It is a freewheeling way of thinking, in which there is little criticism of ideas.
The Blue Hat stands for process control and discusses the thinking process. This is the hat worn by people chairing meetings. Having a facilitator maintain this role throughout helps ensure that the group remains focused on task and improves their chances of achieving their objectives.
3.2 Mind Mapping
This is a technique that encourages creative thinking as it holds information that the mind finds easy to identify with and review. Mind mapping allows you to quickly find and understand the structure of complex problems. Mind maps are often used during brainstorming. The technique requires that a model such as a tree with branches be used. The main parts of the problem are draw on the bigger branches and smaller issues on the secondary branches. Creativity is applied to each part of the issue rather than the whole.
This technique is used where you cannot think of any more ideas. Helps you when your thinking process is blocked or shut down and you cannot find any solutions.
3.4 The 5 Whys
This is useful for dealing with problems that have hidden agendas. The technique drills into situations to find the real problem and clarify issues and forming creative solutions.
4. Problem Solving of Functional problem
Altech UEC specialises in the design, development, supply and support of integrated hardware and software solutions for the world-wide digital Multimedia industry.
In the project management field that I function within, the key focus is to deliver product on time, within budget and at the acceptable quality standards. The one area in 60% of all projects that fails to deliver successfully is the mechanical design of the enclosure. I will use the framework developed in 2 to realise the solution to this problem.
4.1 Define/Identify the problem
a) The mechanical design for each product is only a concept rendering that is unique to each product offering.
b) It occurs in the engineering and product management departments.
c) During project development of a new product.
d) Each offering to the customer is unique with no-reuse of existing mechanical enclosures.
e) With mechanical engineer, product manager, customer
f) An expected 12 weeks delivery of mechanical enclosure is taking 24 wks to complete
“Why does the mechanical enclosure take 24 weeks to complete instead of the planned 12 weeks”
As a goal objective : What must be done to reduce the mechanical enclosure development to 12 weeks.
4.2 Analyse the Problem
This problem has existed approximately 5 years, since the customer was allowed to decide on the aesthetic look of the set-to-box. This is a critical issue to the delivery cycle of product to the customer. The average delivery cycle of a complete unit in production and to the customer should be 6 months. Causes of the problem maybe Unknown technologies being used, Concept rendered drawings rather than mechanical design models, and Customer requiring changes after design was approved. The effect is that there is longer design cycles and longer to market delivery cycles. The mechanical team have tried to model various options but due to unknown electronic affects such as thermal testing and electrical grounding may affect the design.
4.3 Generate Possible Solutions
Brainstorming was used to work out possible solutions. Ideas generated were as follows:
1) Altech UEC generates a set number of enclosures to match the various offerings available. The only change will be on the fascia view of the product.
2) The mechanical engineering team designs the model and develops the mechanical model before the product is released to the customer for approval. No acceptance to be done or released to customer on unrealised designs.
3) Tooling manufacturers external to UEC are contracted to be involved in the modelling stages to reduce occurrences of designs that will not work
4) Review existing procedures and signoff against international standards and make necessary changes where applicable
5) Outsource the mechanical design to a 3rd party and performs this as its core business
4.4 Analyse the Solutions
The solution were rated against practicality and cost. The highest rated idea was (1), (5), (2), (4) and (3). It was also thought that a combination of (2), (3) and (4) could be considered as a combination idea.
4.5 Select the best Solution
The best solution selected by voting was (1). The vote was decided by key stakeholders in the organisation such as the product development team, mechanical team and manufacturing team.
4.6 Develop an action plan
The action plan answered the questions as follows:
a) The mechanical enclosure is available at the start of the project. There is no major development to the design of the STB. Only changes will be to the fascia aesthetics.
b) A listing of the full product road map is required to determine the categories of enclosures to be supported. All mechanical design such as clipping of parts together and thermal cooling to be completed in each category.
c) The Engineering Manager will be responsible for driving this through the organisations as a Product Design unit initiative. The Product managers will be the custodians of the product categories.
d) This is a 6 month initiative with the first step being the product categories. The next step will be the actual design of enclosures to these categories bedding down the mechanical design and product.
e) Regular meetings are being held to discuss progress and determine if the plan is in action
f) The realisation will be the use of the first mechanical design on zapper low cost products.
g) The Engineering manager will be the sponsor of this “project” to ensure all stakeholder’s keep their “eyes on the prize”
4.7 Implement the solution
A Gantt was created to allocate tasks and monitor progress.
4.8 Verify the solution
The product line is being developed according to specific category mechanical model implementations. Effectiveness of the solution will be seen on new products that will go from design into mass production. The cycle time of mechanics can then be measured.
In times were there is a constant change in technology and product development, it is essential to have effective problem solving frameworks. The lack of such framework will lead to problems recurring when they should have been solved. Organisations cannot afford such costly mistakes if they are to be globally competitive. A successful problem solving organization will be a successful organization.
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