Four problem-solving guidelines for your business

Maxim #43

This maxim is really about problem-solving. One of the hardest things about problem-solving is that it requires real “analysis”. As consultants, we spend most of our waking hours problem solving, so eventually we get quite good at doing analyses of various kinds, but it is very much a learned skill, not an innate one. Very few people who join our company know how to do real analysis, even the ones who come from well-known business schools.

Apparently, there are physiological reasons for why people struggle with complex problem-solving as outlined in “The Thinker’s Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving“. A few of these tendencies are:

  • We often start with a conclusion.
  • The analysis focuses on the favored solution, avoiding alternatives.
  • Confusing “discussing the problem” with “analyzing the problem.”

When people first learn how to map and “analyze” a process to determine its constraints, they invariably do it superficially. There are many reasons this can happen. One of the more common ones is that the mapped process more reflects what people think should happen, as opposed to what actually happens. But even if the process is well documented, determining the limiting constraints of the process requires a comprehensive understanding of the capacities at each stage. Those capacities can vary by product or service, shift, operator or machine. Like any discipline, it is helpful to have a methodology to follow.

Analysis requires digging below the surface to get at the core issues or “root causes.” There are many problem-solving frameworks that have been developed over time. Some organizations apply the “5 Whys”to force the problem solver to get below the symptoms, while others try to force managers to always explore three possible solutions before they fixate on just one. Both of these techniques have their inherent strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, there is no “silver bullet” that works in every case. Generally the usefulness of a problem solving technique is based on the fact that it requires someone to go through an actual process or methodology to properly structure the analysis. This concept of structuring, which is essentially disaggregating a problem into components and then analyzing the individual components, is useful to try to stop the tendencies mentioned earlier.

Here are four basic problem-solving guidelines that we would recommend when dealing with complex problems:

  1. Make sure you have clearly defined the actual problem that needs resolving.
  2. Teams are generally better than individuals at coming up with alternatives.
  3. Apply a formal analytical method that separates the key components or issues.
  4. Be disciplined about what the analysis is telling you, rather than making the numbers fit a preconceived “solution.”