5 Steps to Become a Problem Solving Rockstar in the digital era

The world is moving fast. New technologies pop up almost every day. The majority of organizations are driving a certain type of transformation. There is lots of things happening around and we are in the midst of this swirl.

With the recent developments of artificial intelligence adoption, more and more people started to worry about the future of their jobs. While the future of work will certainly change, I believe we don’t need to worry as we will always need humans. Humans who are capable to work together with machines.

It is clear that machines can already replace the majority of repetitive jobs, yet the ones which require complex problem solving remain a challenge. It seems like we are entering an era where humans will be training robots on how to do manual tasks, while the most complex tasks will be left for human brain. 

The most successful companies look to humans and machines as allies.

Since our business processes are getting more and more complicated, problem solving consequently requires more elaborate thinking too. So, if you face a dilemma where to allocate your educational budget, I would definitely steer it towards complex problem solving skills.    

Whichever literature you look at, the problem solving process usually follows the same steps. It looks pretty straightforward and not that complex. However, when you try to apply it in practice, it becomes a challenge for many of us. I’d therefore like to share some practical tips and tools with you, which will help you on your way to become a super star in problem solving.

1. Define your problem

This is the first, yet one of the hardest steps in the problem solving process. If you are not accurate and clear here, the following analysis will most likely be wasted time. You need to be crystal clear which exact problem you are trying to solve and ensure your stakeholders are on the same page. But how?   

The magic lies in QUANTIFY. If you describe your problem statement by using numbers instead of words, it becomes clear and less subjective for different interpretations. Once quantifying your problem, the bare minimum should include at least:

  • Current actual condition. Where are you today? 
  • Target condition. Where do you want to be; or what is the required standard by your customer?
  • Trend. What does your problem look like over time? Is it consistent over weeks/ months or is it a seasonal effect? Maybe you are facing an outlier? Maybe next month you will be on track? 

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, so apply this to your problem statement and visualize it in a simple run chart. Next to your chart, you can script a short problem description which includes: where, what and when. 

Most importantly, don’t forget to communicate your problem definition to all relevant stakeholders to ensure everyone is on the same page. Once that’s done, we can move forward with the next step.

2. Do your root cause analysis

At this point it’s crucial to open up your mind to learn new things and not jumping to solutions immediately. It’s the time when you go to the “crime scene” and observe the process and witness where it goes wrong. It really helps if you document your observations in a structured way by using, for example these tools: 

  • 5WHYs technique. Ask why until you find a root cause – something that you can immediately take action on. Please, take a look at how it works in practice. Sometimes asking WHY can be difficult, especially if your problem is too broad, so try to use the pareto principle (which I’ll explain below).
An Italian economist developed 80/20 rule in the late 1800’s when he noticed that 80% of land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people.
  • Pareto principle basically boils down to you slicing and dicing data to find ~20% of things which cause ~80% of your problem. Again, it’s good to visualize your findings in a graph and you can use these templates. Typically you need to create at least a few Pareto graphs and let your business acumen decide which one provides the most logical conclusion before you e.g. apply 5Why technique.
  • Fishbone diagram is a great tool to use when you are brainstorming on potential causes with involved parties. You start by outlining your problem at the “fish head”, then move into describing the causes on the main bones and provide more details by drawing smaller bones. In the end you will have a picture which serves as a cause – effect diagram. You can find examples and templates here.
  • BOB and WOW technique is good to use when you are slightly lost and still trying to understand your problem. If you want to see an example how Bob and Wow technique can be applied, please read my previous blog post. 

While these tools will help you a lot to structure your root cause analysis, please don’t forget to always validate your insights with data or people who actually do the job. In LEAN we call it going to gemba – the actual place where value is created. You can read more about going to gemba here. 

While doing your root cause analysis, never blame people! It’s always the process.

3. Develop countermeasures

You probably won’t believe it, but developing countermeasures is actually the easiest step if you have done a good job in the previous stage. Once you have found the root causes, and don’t forget that usually there are at least a couple of them, countermeasures are usually pretty straightforward. If they are not straightforward, then you need to continue your root cause analysis until you know exactly what you need to do. 

These countermeasures can be categorized into quick fixes and permanent. Quick fixes will contain the problem in the short term, but cannot be sustainable in the long term. So, we need to define permanent countermeasures, which will most likely take more time and effort to implement, but create sustainable results.

It is important to understand that in most cases we need both types of countermeasures. Quick fixes to contain the burning fire now and permanent solutions to ensure we can detect the fire before it occurs next time. 

Usually it’s at least a couple of countermeasures needed to close the gap of your problem. There is rarely one magical solution.

4. Check the effect on your problem

Never celebrate too early and always monitor over time how your implemented countermeasures are affecting the problem. Track progress until you are certain that the results have been sustained. 

In case you don’t see the desired impact on your problem, then unfortunately you need to go back to your root cause analysis stage and look again with a fresh set of eyes and discover what you have potentially missed out the first time around. To be very honest with you, most of the time you need to come back and adjust some things. So, don’t be afraid to continuously try out new things and learn from your experiences.

If some things didn’t work, that’s also a learning, because next time you will know not to try that way.

5. Ensure new ways of working are “cemented”

Making sure improvements stick is one of the biggest challenges faced in business. It often happens that after a couple of months we derail to the old ways of working, thus recreating the former problem. In order to avoid it, I would advise to:

  • Continuously measure at the actual place where the process is executed. 
  • Ensure the new ways of working become the standard. Don’t forget to train and coach employees and embed it in the new hire training.
  • Ensure there is leadership buy-in to sustain the improvement.
Plaster cement wall indoor construction
Don’t rush to celebrate too early and pause. Stabilising new processes ensures the success of improvement.

Problem solving is never easy, but a necessary element of every successful organization. Organizations which focus on highlighting their problems instead of hiding them, win in the long run. Especially as small unattended problems can lead to big crises. 

I wish you to be in an environment where problem solving is everyone’s every day job. So you can continuously master your structured problem solving skills. Good luck, and if you have any questions or remarks, leave them in the comments below.

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