Are your problem-solving activities getting you the results you want?

Brainstorming solutions and making decisions are just a couple problem-solving activities. Ironically, they may be the smallest and least important steps. A natural reaction when faced with a problem is to get to work. Many times, however, valuable time or resources are wasted chasing poorly defined outcomes.

Problem-solving activities should not be confused with results. Being busy might feel productive, but it is easy to confuse being busy with doing goal oriented work.

Time can be saved and results improved by applying a little discipline to your problem-solving approach. From experience (and research, if you are persuaded by scientific problem solving like I am), the five most important problem-solving activities are:

  1. Go see the problem. Lean thinkers call this "Going to the gemba." Get first-hand experience of it. How? Get out of your office. Quit having conversations through email. If you can, watch your customers. Get engaged with the processes that make up your business.

  2. Eliminate anecdotes and get the truth. Measure if possible. The problem may be smaller (or bigger) than you think. Let's say, for example, that your problem is declining revenue. Is the decline caused by lower sales of all products or just one? Do you have fewer customers or are the ones you have spending less? Your answers could lead you on wildly different paths to a solution. Your goal should be to make the minimal necessary change to affect the problem. Your ability to do this is directly related to your understanding of the size and cause of the problem.

  3. Dig for the root cause. You expect your doctor to do this. Why not expect the same in the management of your business? Do not settle for treatments that just affect symptoms...find a cure.

  4. Seek the wisdom of many instead of the knowledge of a few.

  5. Implement a solution only after you are sure that you understand it well enough to tell others why you did it.

A primary goal in solving any problem is to make complex situations more manageable. All these problem solving activities help clear your mind and create a clear vision of your desired result.

If you look again at the five steps above, you will see that four of the five activities above have to do with studying and learning about the problem. Only after understanding the whole picture well enough to describe it easily should innovation become your primary goal.

Remember, the goal is to find the best solution to your problem. No matter what method you are using, these problem-solving activities work well to help you understand why you are having the problem to begin with. Understanding "why" more easily lets your brain move to "what" and you will likely see solutions that you would not have considered.


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