As business leaders we are bombarded with challenges that need to be addressed, situations that need to be improved, and problems that need to be solved.
Of course, each challenge, situation or problem is different. Nevertheless, there are some fundamentals of problem solving.
1. Define the Real Problem
This is the biggie. Ensure that you are solving the right problem. And ensure that you are solving the root cause of the problem and are not just treating the symptoms. There are numerous methods to determine root causes – cause mapping, fishbone diagrams, etc. For me, the easiest 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, which may be very different from what appeared to initially be the problem.
2. Define the Real Problem
I have to repeat this because it is so important. Determine the real problem and solve it. 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.
3. 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 Professor 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.
4. Use Hypothesis
As happens on the CSI television shows, make a best guess as to the solution to the problem at the beginning – define the initial hypothesis. Then test this initial hypothesis digging deep to determine whether the hypothesis is right or wrong. Then, adjust the hypothesis as the facts dictate. This use of hypothesis has been the basis of the scientific method for the last several hundred years. There are two advantages to problem solving using a hypothesis. First, the initial hypothesis gives you a framework, a way of explanation, to understand all the facts and data that you are collecting. Second, by calling it a hypothesis that still needs to be proven you avoid becoming locked in on a solution and are more open to changing your mind as the facts dictate.
5. Keep the solution simple
Any solution to a problem has to be implemented by your team. Thus, keep the solution as simple as possible. Be able to explain the solution to the problem clearly and precisely in 30 seconds or less. Keep the action items to solve the problem to three or fewer. Think 80 / 100. Go for the solution that solves 80% of the problem, but that is 100% implementable by the team rather than the 100% solution that is unlikely to ever be properly implemented.
6. Do not re-invent the wheel
Unlike in school, plagiarism can be good. If someone has a clever idea or way to solve your problem, by all means legally use it. “Not invented here” syndrome is just sheer arrogance.
7. Gain momentum in problem solving
In situations where you have multiple problems to solve (for example, a business turnaround, new market development, or an acquisition) pluck the low hanging, but important, fruit first; solve the easy problems. This gives momentum, shows progress, and gives your team confidence. Then focus on continuing to hit singles, not home runs. The way to success is to solve hundreds of little problems.
8. Consider time
Look at the time element in problems and problem solving. In any solution, think critical path to 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. With most problems, solutions that take longer than a few months will likely fail. The momentum will die out; top management will move on to another “critical issue.” To best solve a problem, implement your solution before the day, before the week, before the month is out.
Define the problem properly. Solve. Implement quickly. Move on to the next problem. Repeat.