The Systematic Problem-Solving (SPS) Method:

Make better decisions tom g. stevens phd.

Solving problems is important in every area of human thinking. Learning general problem-solving skills can therefore help you improve your ability to cope with every area of your life. All disciplines of philosophy, business, science, and humanities have developed their own approach to solving problems. Remarkably, the problem-solving models developed by each of these areas are strikingly similar. I describe a simple problem-solving process that you can use to solve almost all problems.

Stages of the problem-solving process. The famous psychologist, Dr. Carl Rogers, was one of the first to help us understand how important self-exploration and problem-solving are for overcoming all types of personal, psychological, and daily-living problems. (1);

Consciously going through each of these four stages when solving any complex problem can be very useful. Following are the five stages of the problem-solving method.






During this stage, we gather all of the information we can about both external aspects of the problem and internal aspects. Good information gathering is not an easy process. Scientists spend their whole lives trying to learn about some very small piece of the world. The type of information-gathering process we use will depend upon the type of problem we are trying to solve. For information about the world the following are powerful skills to use.

  •  Library reference skills
  •  Observational skills
  •  Informational interviewing skills
  •  Critical thinking skills
  •  Scientific method skills
  •  Data analysis and statistical skills

Learning how to become an expert at identifying problems and finding causes is essential to become an expert in any field. The above skills are useful in solving many types of problems--even intra-personal ones. However, the focus of this book is how to be happy; and the key to happiness almost always involves not just external causes but internal ones as well.

It is usually much easier for most of us to observe an external event than an internal one. We have our external sensory organs to see and hear external events, but not internal ones. How do we observe that which we cannot see? We can learn to be better observers of our emotions, self-talk, and images.

The self-exploration process described above provides enough information to make you an expert at self-exploration. That is one of the most essential parts of developing your own inner therapist.


Gather all the best information you can about possible solutions. Use brainstorming techniques, observe and consult with people who have overcome similar problems, read relevant material, consult experts, and recall your own relevant past experience. Look at both internal and external solutions.

Once you learn so many different routes to happiness, then you will be truly free to choose to be happy in almost any situation you face in life. The actual choice is made in stage 3 of the /problem-solving process. The appendix contains a very useful decision-making model for helping you make complex choices such as choosing a career or relationship. The following is a simple approach to making a decision between alternatives. (See Carkhuff Decision-Making Model, below, for a method for making complex decisions--for career or life planning.);

(1); List all the alternatives you are considering

(2); List all of the values or criteria that will be affected by the decision

(3); Evaluate each alternative by each criteria or value

(4); Choose the alternative which you predict will satisfy the criteria the best and lead to your greatest overall happiness

STAGE 4:  PLANNING AND ACTION (Experimenting);

Many decisions are made, but never implemented. See that you follow-up with good planning. Once you have made your choice, you can use some of the planning methods suggested in the O-PATSM method from chapter 11 to make sure that you follow through with your decision.

This is the stage of acting on your decision. Many people fear making mistakes and failure as if these were some terrible sins that they should never commit. That view of life of life makes every decision and action seem very serious and they often become very timid people who lack creativity and are plagued by guilt and fear of failure. Instead we can view every action as an experiment. If one of our overall goals in life is learning and growth, then we can never fail to learn. All people who have accomplished great happiness for themselves and contributed to others have shared the courage to act on their beliefs.


Many people hate to be evaluated and dread finding out the results of what they have done out of fear that the feedback will be negative. These fears can be serious impediments to the growth that can only happen through getting open, accurate feedback.

However, once learning and growth are important goals, then getting feedback becomes highly desirable. How else can we learn? Even negative outcomes can provide valuable information. Of course, almost everyone would rather have outcomes that maximize happiness; but when we don't, we can at least try to maximize our learning. Learning can help maximize happiness in the future.

We can also make the mistakes of dwelling on past mistakes that goes beyond constructive learning and reasonable reparations to victims and of punishing ourselves unnecessarily. Normally, there is no value to punishment--once a lesson has been learned. (2); Keep clear at all times that this problem-solving process is only a tool to serve the overall life goals of increased health, growth, and happiness.

CARKHUFF DECISION-MAKING MODEL:   This particular decision-making model is based upon one by Dr. Robert Carkhuff and follows the general guidelines of a considerable amount of research on how people can make more effective decisions. It can also be used for any other type of decision--from buying a new car to choosing a mate.


The decision-making model will be illustrated in a way which you can use aa an analogy for making your own career decision. In this example, Henry is trying to decide whether to major in psychology or in computer science. Thus he has narrowed his alternatives to the following two:

1); majoring in psychology with a career goal of either going into high school counseling or teaching or 2); majoring in computer science with a possible goal of working as a computer programmer.

These are represented along the top axis of the following matrix.

  ** is the WINNER-it has the most points of the two alternatives


STEP 1-- LIST YOUR CAREER ALTERNATIVES. This is your refined list of alternatives of which majors or occupations you are trying to decide between. Remember, that you can list as many as you want. You can list unusual combinations of simpler alternatives. For Henry those narrowed alternatives were psychology and computer science.

STEP 2--CAREER SELECTION CRITERIA. Review your Career Selection Criteria list and write all the important career selection criteria in the far left column. Note that repeating the same idea or leaving out an important idea can affect the decision outcome.

STEP 3-- CRITERIA WEIGHTS. Evaluate the relative importance to you of each of your Career Selection Criteria on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the most important);. Write your answer in the column next to the selection criteria.

STEP 4--ALTERNATIVE EVALUATION SCALE. Each alternative is to be evaluated from the point of view of each selection criterion. You need to think about what this means for each selection criterion. For example Henry determined that for the selection criteria of income , a "minimally acceptable" income would be $25,000 starting with prospects of making up to $50,000 eventually. An outstanding salary would be starting at about $40, 000 with prospects of making up to $100,000.

+5 = Maximum evaluation--outstanding (example: income begin $40,000 go to $100,000 +4, +3, +2, +1 = intermediate values

0 = Minimally acceptable value. (example: income = begin $20,000 go to $45,000);

-1, -2, -3, -4 = intermediate values

-5 = Minimum evaluation--worst possible (example: income < $10,000

STEP 5--EVALUATE EACH ALTERNATIVE BY EACH SELECTION CRITERION. Use the evaluation scale from step 3 to evaluate each alternative from the point of view of each Career Selection Criterion. Give it rating from -5 to +5. In the example above, both alternatives were evaluated on the criterion of "income": Henry gave the psychology income an evaluation of "+2" and computer science income an evaluation of " +4."

STEP 6--MULTIPLY THE CRITERIA WEIGHTS TIMES THE EVALUATIONS. In the example above for the selection criterion of "income," Henry multiplied the criterion weight of "9" times the evaluation of " +2" for "PSYCH" to get a result of "18." That is its SCORE OR POINTS for psychology on the criterion of income. Put it inside of the parentheses. This score of 18 is an overall prediction much Henry's income in psychology will contribute to his overall happiness. Since he had a score of 36 in computer science, he his predicting that he will be much happier with his income in that field.

STEP 7--FIND THE OVERALL SUM OF THE SCORES FOR EACH ALTERNATIVE. Add together the numbers inside the parentheses for each alternative. In the example above, the overall sum for the "PSYCH" alternative is "405."

STEP 8--COMPARE THE ALTERNATIVES WITH EACH OTHER AND WITH THE "IDEAL." The "ideal" is the maximum possible number of points. Once you have determined all the totals and compared them to each other, try to figure out why one alternative came out ahead of another--where it got its points. Play with the points until you think the points match your true feelings and values.

* The alternative with the most points is the one you are predicting will make you the happiest person.

1. 1 Some might argue that Freud was the first. He clearly did describe many helpful techniques. I think that some of his free association techniques are still very useful for helping to find underlying beliefs, images, or cognitive systems which are related to the problem. However, Rogers was the one that more clearly described the stages of self-exploration and problem-solving and the conditions of unconditional positive regard, empathetic understanding, and genuineness on the part of the therapist which seem to be important to the therapeutic process or to any person attempting to feel better.

Robert Carkhuff (one of Roger's pupils); has developed a structured training system for helping people learn these skills. Robert Cash, a personal friend, has further elaborated these skills in his own courses and introduced me to this process. There is a good deal of research supporting the effectiveness of these techniques.

2. 2 This statement does not address the use of punishment as a deterrent to prevent some persons from profiting from their dysfunctional behaviors. For example if behaviors such as murder, robbery, or selling drugs are not given sufficient punishment, some people will engage in these behaviors. A person whose ultimate concern is money and pleasure may deal drugs to make money with little regard to how it affects others. Increasing the cost for a person with those beliefs can reduce the chances they will sell drugs.

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Systematic Problem Solving

What is Problem-solving?

Before we understand problem-solving, let us first calibrate ourselves on ‘what is called a problem?’

When there is a gap between our expectations and reality, we feel unhappy – which is a Problem . This is how a deviation from the specification, a failure to meet timelines, etc., become our problems. A problem could be defined as “the gap between our expectations and actual state or observation”.

From the gap analogy, we also understand that as the gap increases, our suffering intensifies.

CSense - Problem-Solving - Definition


A fundamental part of every manager’s role is problem-solving. So, being a confident problem solver is really important to your success.

Much of that confidence comes from having a good process to use when approaching a problem. With one, you can solve problems quickly and effectively. Without one, your solutions may be ineffective, or you’ll get stuck and do nothing, sometimes with painful consequences.

Managing the problem (correction) instead of solving it (with corrective action) creates firefighting in our daily work. To solve a problem permanently, we need to understand and act on its root cause. We will also follow the steps of identifying root causes and prevent their recurrence in this workshop.

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systematic problem solving process

Applications of methodology

The methodology is simple and applicable to most of the problems faced by the industries. Hence, it is widely accepted and recommended by companies. This also forms a framework for Auto industries’ 8D Problem Solving, Pharma industries’ USFDA recommended 7 step approach and Six Sigma’s DMAIC approach.

Training Contents

Step by Step Approach to Problem-Solving

1. identification.

2. Containment Action

3. Investigation

4. Cause Analysis

5. Improvement

Training Duration

About the Course

The Problem-Solving workshop caters to leaders and managers who are interested in solving the recurring problems and want to bring in the culture and team-based approach of systematic problem solving to every level of people in the organisation. We deal with the most relevant tools in the step-by-step approach. We can take up the actual cases of recurring problems in the company as an example and study for the workshop. The course covers essential problem-solving tools like problem definition, containment action, root cause analysis with QC tools, root cause validation using statistical tools, corrective action, preventive action, escape points, Poka-yoke and more.

Course Objectives

At the end of the course, participants will be able to understand and appreciate

Target Audience

Workshop Methodology

CSense Workshop approach is based on scientifically proven methodologies of Learning, which includes Learning by

Min 12 and Max 20 Participants per batch


We can customise the deliverable as per client’s requirements.


Additional Support

Continued coaching and hand-holding support could be provided by CSense after the workshop for successful project completion, as an optional engagement.


Problem Solving: A Systematic Approach

Problem Solving: A Systematic Approach

One of the joys of Project Management is the constant need for problem-solving.

The novelty and uncertainty of a project environment constantly throw up surprises. So, a Project Manager needs to be adept at solving problems.

In this article, we look at problem-solving and offer you a structured, systematic approach.

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Problem Solving Methodologies

Problem Solving: A Systematic Approach

For example, in automobile manufacturing industries, the 8 Disciplines or 8-D methodology is used widely. And anywhere that Six Sigma is an important part of the toolset, you will probably find the DMAIC method of problem-solving.

Others I like include Simplex and the catchily-named TOSIDPAR. And there are still others that, whilst highly effective, are also assertively protected by copyright, making them hard to discuss in an article like this. I’m thinking of you, Synectics.

Strengths and Weaknesses

All of these methodologies offer great features. And curiously, while each one feels complete, none offers every step you might want. The reason is simple. Each approach is tailored to focus on a part of the problem-solving process. Other parts are either outside their remit or receive less emphasis.

Comparison of Approaches

The consequence is that every structured approach can miss out steps that are important in some contexts. To illustrate, let’s compare the four methodologies I have mentioned.

Comparison of Four Problem-solving Methodologies

Comparison of Four Problem-solving Methodologies

Resolving the Gaps

At OnlinePMCourses, we use an 8-step problem-solving approach that covers just about all of the steps that these four methodologies offer. But, before we address these, let’s take a look at some practical approaches to applying problem-solving.

Practical Implementation

Some of the best examples of project problem-solving are in two of my favorite movies:

In the Apollo 13 movie, there’s a scene where one engineer dumps a big pile of stuff onto a table in front of a bunch of his colleagues.

‘The people upstairs handed us this one and we’ve gotta come through. We’ve gotta’ find a way for this {holds up square thing] fit into the hole for this [a round thing] using nothing but that [a pile of random-looking stuff]. Let’s get it organized.’

They all dive in and we hear a hubbub.

Hubbub is about as reasonable a translation of the Japanese onomatopoeic word Waigaya as I can find. The idea behind Honda’s Waigaya approach is that everyone on the team gets to contribute to the conversation. But it isn’t a simple free-for-all. There are rules:

There is a fabulous article that is well worth reading, at the Strategy & Business site .

In the Martian, the character Mark Watney is stuck with his problem. This makes it immediate, and also easy to see the context clearly. Another idea from Japanese manufacturing harnesses the value of getting out from behind your desk and going to where the problem is. It’s called ‘ going to the gemba’ – literally, ‘going to the place’ .

There is magic, when we get up, move about, and gather where the problem is happening. Going to the gemba and convening a waigaya is a great way to kick-off even the most complex problem-solving. Unless, that is, the gemba is halfway to the moon, or on Mars.

Recommended 8-Step Problem Solving Method

To reconcile the different methodologies for solving problems on projects, I have developed my own approach. It was tempting just to take the 17 steps in the chart above. But I also found that those four still miss some steps I find important to remember.

Would anyone think a 20-step Problem-solving Process Makes Sense?

I doubt it.

So, I decided to wrap some of the steps into 8 main steps. This gives us an 8-step method, which has everything that I have found you will need for problem-solving in a project context.

In the figure below, you can see those 8 steps as the bold boxes, with the subsidiary elements that form parts of those 8 major steps in fainter type.

Comparison of Four Problem-solving Methodologies with the OnlinePMCourses Approach

Comparison of Four Problem-solving Methodologies with the OnlinePMCourses Approach

So, in the rest of this article, I’ll summarize what I mean by each of these steps.

1. Define the Problem

Defining your problem is vital and takes up four of the 9 steps in the 8 Disciplines approach. But, on a project, this is often clearer than a new problem arising out of the blue in a manufacturing context, where 8D is most popular. So, I have folded the four parts into one step.

Understand the Context

Here’s where you need to find out how the problem impacts the whole of your project, and the circumstances in which it has arisen.

Gather Your Team

On a small project, this is likely to be all or most of your project team. For larger projects, this will center around the team delivering the work-stream that the problem affects. For systemic problems, you’ll be asking work-stream leaders to supply expert team members to create a cross-cutting team. We sometimes call these ‘Tiger Teams’ – for reasons I can’t tell you, I’m afraid!

To support you in this stage, you may want to take a look at these articles:

Define the Problem

It’s often reasonably easy to define your problem in terms of ‘what’s wrong’. But it pays to be a specific as possible. And one thing that will help you with the next main step (setting an objective) is to define it in terms of what you want.

I like the discipline of defining your problem as:

How to…

Safety First

When I first encountered the 8 Disciplines method, the step that blew me away was D3 – Contain the Problem. I’d not thought of that before!

But it’s clear that, in many environments, like manufacturing, engineering, and transportation, solving the problem is not your first priority. You must first ensure that you do everything possible to limit further damage and risk to life and reputation. This may be the case on your project.

2. Set An Objective for Resolving the Problem

With everything safe and the problem not getting worse, you can move forward. This step is about defining what success looks like.

And, taking a leaf out of the TOSIDPAR approach, what standards, criteria, and measurable outcomes will you use to make your objective s precise as possible?

3. Establish the Facts of the Problem

I suppose the first step in solving a problem is getting an understanding of the issues, and gathering facts. This is the research and analysis stage.

And I like the DMAIC method’s approach of separating this into two distinct parts:

4. Find Options for Resolving the Problem

I see this step as the heart of problem-solving. So, it always surprises me how thin some methodologies are, here. I split it into four considerations.

Identify Your Options

The creative part of the problem-solving process is coming up with options that will either solve the problem or address it in part. The general rules are simple:

Rule 1: The more options you have, the greater chance of success. Rule 2: The more diverse your team, the more and better will be the options they find.

So, create an informal environment, brief your team, and use your favorite idea generation methods to create the longest list of ideas you can find. Then, look for some more!

Identify your Decision Criteria

A good decision requires good input – in this case, good ideas to choose from. It also needs a strong process and the right people. The first step in creating a strong process is to refer back to your objectives for resolving the problem and define the criteria against which you will evaluate your options and make your decision.

Determine your Decision-makers

You also need to determine who is well placed to make the decision. This will be by virtue of their authority to commit the project and their expertise in assessing the relevant considerations. In most cases, this will be you – maybe with the support of one or more work-stream leaders. For substantial issues that have major financial, schedule, reputational, or strategic implications, this may be your Project Sponsor or Project Board.

Evaluate your Options

There are a number of ways to evaluate your problem resolution options that range from highly structured and objective to simple subjective approaches. Whichever you select, be sure that you apply the criteria you chose earlier, and present the outcomes of your evaluation honestly.

It is good practice to offer a measure of the confidence decision-makers can have in the evaluation, and a scenario assessment, based on each option.

5. Make a Decision for How to Resolve the Problem

We have done two major articles like this one about decision-making. For more on this topic, take a look at:

There are two parts to this step, that are equally important.

Documenting your Decision

Good governance demands that you document your decision. But how documentation to provide is a matter of judgement. Doubtless, it will correlate to the scale and implications of that decision.

Things to consider include:

6. Make a Plan for Resolving the Problem

Well, of course, now you need to put together a plan for how you are going to implement your resolution. Unless, of course, the fix is simple enough that you can just ask your team to get on and do it. So, in that case, skip to step 7.

Inform your Stakeholders

But for an extensive change to your project, you will need to plan the fix. And you will also need to communicate the decision and your plan to your stakeholders. Probably, this is nothing more than informing them of what has happened and how you are acting to resolve it. This can be enormously reassuring and the cost of not doing so is often rumours and gossip about how things are going wrong and that you don’t have control of your project.

Sometimes, however, your fix is a big deal. It may involve substantial disruption, delay, or risk, for example. In this case, you may need to persuade some of your stakeholders that it is the right course of action. As always, communication is 80 per cent of project management, and stakeholder engagement is critical to the success of your project.

7. Take Action

There’s an old saying: ‘there’s no change without action.’ Indeed.

What more can I say about this step that will give you any value?

Hmmm. Nothing.

8. Review and Evaluate Your Plan

But this step is vital. How you finish something says a lot about your character.

If you consider the problem-solving as a mini-project, this is the close stage. And what you need to do will echo the needs of that stage. I’ll focus on three components.

Review and Evaluate

Clearly, there is always an opportunity to learn from reviewing the problem, the problem-solving, and the implementation, after completion. This is important for your professional development and for that of your team colleagues.

But it is also crucial to keep the effectiveness of your fix under review. So, monitor closely, until you are confident you have completed the next task…

Prevent the Problem Recurring

Another phrase from the world of Japanese manufacturing: ‘Poka Yoke’ .

This is mistake-proofing. It is about designing something so it can’t fail. What stops you from putting an SD card or a USB stick into your device in the wrong orientation? If you did, the wrong connections of pins would probably either fry the memory device or, worse, damage your device.

The answer is that they are physically designed so they cannot be inserted incorrectly.

What can you do on your project to make a recurrence of this problem impossible? If there is an answer and that answer is cost-effective, then implement it.

Celebrate your Success in Fixing it

Always the last thing you do is celebrate. Now, when Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise (the crew of Apollo 13) returned safely to Earth, I’ll bet there was a big celebration. For solving your project problem, something modest is more likely to be in order. But don’t skill this. Even if it’s nothing more than a high five and a coffee break, always ensure that your team knows they have done well.

What Approach Do You Use for Problem-Solving?

How do you tackle solving problems on your projects? Do tell us, or share any thoughts you have, in the comments below. I’ll respond to anything you contribute.

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About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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University Human Resources

8-step problem solving process, organizational effectiveness.

121 University Services Building, Suite 50 Iowa City , IA 52242-1911 United States

Step 1: Define the Problem

Step 2: Clarify the Problem

Step 3: Define the Goals

Step 4: Identify Root Cause of the Problem

Step 5: Develop Action Plan

Step 6: Execute Action Plan

Step 7: Evaluate the Results

Step 8: Continuously Improve

A Systematic Approach to Solving Just About Any Problem

Problems can be difficult to solve when we only know the issue and none of the steps to fix it. Sometimes it's even more daunting to figure out what those steps are at all. This guide will help you take just about any problem and figure out a plan to solve it and stay motivated when handling long-term issues.

Some problems, such as fixing a broken computer, can be pretty easy to solve if you have the right knowledge. Others, such as figuring out what you want to do with your life, can be very overwhelming because that answer is unique to you and takes time and experience to resolve—not to mention several other complications. Nonetheless, you can find solutions to simple and difficult problems alike by approaching them a particular way. While this approach to problem-solving isn't the only way, it's one way I've found particularly effective. Here are the basic steps you need to take to go from problem to solution:

In this guide we'll go over each step in detail and use each steps to solve a bizarre dilemma.

Understand the Problem

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Understanding the problem you're trying to solve is often the most difficult step because it's easy to focus on the wrong part of the problem, or look at the problem too broadly. For example, if you're sick you may see the problem as being sick. You may be able to get more specific and say that you feel congested. The problem of congestion is more specific and therefore a bit better than knowing your sick, but it's a symptom that applies to many different illnesses and can't reveal the exact problem. You may have a cold, the flu, seasonal allergies, etc., but this one piece of information won't tell you enough to be sure. The problem is, both illness and congestion seem like the problems you want to solve because they're the things that are bothering you, but by seeking to solve either issue you're essentially taking shots in the dark. In order to properly understand the problem you have and make a real effort to solve it, you need to figure out what the problem really is. You need to break the problem down into its simplest form.

Let's look at another example.

The Case of the Stolen Leg: Part I

Pretend for a moment that you lost your leg in a horrible accident and have been living with a prosthetic leg for the past few years. One day you're visited by a traveling salesman who takes a liking to your fake leg and offers to buy it. You don't want to sell it, so he takes advantage of your disability, knocks you on the ground, and steals your leg. The obvious problem is that you're now missing a leg, but that's a problem with little specificity. Fortunately, this is an easy problem to understand because you know the cause: the traveling salesman stole it. That provides a simple solution as well: you need to find the salesman to retrieve your missing prosthetic leg.

That is an easy problem to distill because the cause is obvious, but let's say it's not. What if your leg went missing, suddenly, while you were asleep? You'd look for clues. Perhaps the culprit dropped an item or two along the way. Maybe someone saw him running out with the leg late at night and would be able to identify him. Maybe the tire treads on his car were unusual and could lead to more information. Regardless of what the clues are, when you're trying to solve any kind of problem you need to look for as much information as possible so you know you're focusing on the right things. If you wake up with a missing leg, you might quickly realize that someone stole it but that clue isn't specific enough to be very helpful. It's only enough to help you look for the right kinds of clues.

This is very similar to solving the problem of your congestion. It may seem silly to draw correlations between figuring out an illness and solving the mystery of a stolen prosthetic—and in some ways it is—but the process is pretty much the same. If you're trying to figure out the root cause of illness, you simply search for clues and gather information based on what you find. You might ask what other symptoms you have until those symptoms point to a particular illness. (Or you might just go see a doctor, because you don't want to mess around with your health.)

Regardless of the type of problem, the first thing you need to do is reduce it to its simplest and purest form so you know exactly what you're dealing with. While you're doing this, you need to ask yourself questions to make sure you're focusing on the right things. Once you have your correct and simplified problem, you can move on and put together a plan to actually solve it.

Create a Plan

A problem is just a problem if you don't have any means of finding the solution. You may know the result you're looking for, but if you don't have steps to get there it'll be too far to reach. To get from point A to point B, you need a plan with actionable steps. To figure out those steps, you need to ask yourself what's barring you from moving forward and make that step one. Step one will open doors to other steps. Consider which steps will open more doors, add them to the plan, and keep doing that until you get to your solution. Things will change as you act on the plan and you'll need to adapt, so it's best to keep your plan somewhat open-ended and try to include steps that involve preparing for trouble you can foresee. Obviously this is a bit vague, so let's get back to our story.

The Case of the Stolen Leg: Part II

The problem that needs solving is pretty clear: you've lost your prosthetic leg and you want to get it back. But then you stop—mentally, of course, as you're not going very far with one leg. How are you going to get your leg back? You know the result you want, but achieving it seems impossible. This is not because the traveling salesman has a leg up on you, so to speak, but because you're looking at point A—your missing leg—and point B—catching the salesman and getting your leg back. There's a lot of distance between those two points, and you're not going to get there without some actionable steps in between. What you need is a plan.

How do you put together a plan to recover your leg? You need to avoid thinking about the ultimate outcome and more about the most urgent issue at hand. If your leg has been stolen and you're lying on the ground, what's the first thing you need to do? Get up off the ground. After that? Call for help, as you can't give chase too easily in your condition. So, solving the case of the stolen leg might look something like this:

This plan has steps that work nicely if you know the exact outcome. When you know your outcome, you can outline steps like these because you know exactly where you're going to end up. Technical problems are uniformly simple in this way, but when you're dealing with people you don't have this type of predictability. Generally there's a variable level of capriciousness you have to account for when outlining your solutions. If you do not account for the unexpected, your plan will eventually render itself useless. Obviously, this is something you do not want to happen.

Keep Yourself Motivated

If you end up with a useless plan, it's hard to stay motivated because you might think you've failed. You haven't, but you've just fallen into a common trap of creating a plan that isn't flexible enough to account for surprises along the way. You not only need to make your plans flexible, but you want to try and plan for surprises as well. You won't always know what they are, but you can make educated guesses and be a little more prepared to deal with issues when they arise. This will help keep you motivated when solving problems that take more time, as these surprises won't be so devastating if you're ready for them. Again, this is a bit vague. Let's take a look at how we can use these strategies to get our stolen leg back.

The Case of the Stolen Leg: Part III

Suppose you check every hotel and motel in town but do not locate the salesman. Assuming you've received 100% honest information and he's truly not patronizing any of the local accommodations, your plan becomes useless. This is fine, as most problems you'll encounter will throw you a few surprises and your plan will have to change. The important thing is that you recognize these surprises. In the case of the leg thief salesman, your first instinct failed you and you need more information. At this point you might be kicking yourself—figuratively, of course—because you could've asked everyone you met at the hotels for more information instead of just trying to find out if he'd purchased a room. If you'd collected that information, you might have found out that someone saw him frequenting their favorite coffee shop. You'd then be able to easily change your plan to visit the coffee shop, talk to the baristas, and learn that he's staying with his old aunt who lives on the outskirts of town. With this information, you'd be able to visit his old aunt and catch him before he departed into the sunset with your prosthetic leg.

That's a happy ending to the story, but let's say things didn't work out so well. Let's say you do actually fail and don't get your leg back. Having a plan doesn't mean you eventually get what you want and always succeed. For that reason, it helps to account for failure as well. In a case like this, you can buy another prosthetic leg. It might not be an ideal outcome, but at least you'll be able to get a replacement—even if it's at your own expense. Knowing you won't be legless for too long can reduce the anxiety that comes with taking a chance. You know that if you fail, you'll still be okay.

Let's take a look at what we just did:

Following those steps is generally the easiest way to solve a problem. Of course, a stolen prosthetic leg is not a situation most of us are going to encounter during our lives. Before we wrap things up, let's take a look at a couple of practical examples and how this process applies to them.

A Couple of More Practical Examples

Since you're unlikely to find yourself hunting down prosthetic leg thieves, we're going to take a quick look at breaking down and solving a simple technical problem as well as a complicated life problem.

Breaking Down a Technical Problem

Consider a broken computer that needs to be fixed. All you know is that the computer turns on and makes a strange noise, but it refuses to boot up. You don't know anything more than this, but you still want to fix the computer. With most problems, you have to do a little research to figure out what's truly wrong. This is a lot more fun if you look at it like solving a mystery and use the clues you have to find new clues until you have the answer you're looking for. In the case of the broken computer, consider what you already know: the computer won't boot up and it's making a strange noise. In this case, you're not necessarily being detailed enough. What does the noise sound like? For the purposes of this example, it sounds like clicking—almost like a ticking clock. From here you can easily search online for more information about a broken computer making a clicking noise and you'll discover that the broken component is likely the hard drive. Now you know the actual problem: your hard drive is dead. The solution: it needs to be replaced.

From here you can move forward and plan how to solve it. Your plan might look something like this:

Breaking Down a Complicated Life Problem

Life problems, or problems that less technical and uniform in their solutions, can be a little more difficult to pin down but the process is nonetheless the same. Let's say you've been working as a real estate agent for several years but your real dream in life is to become a painter. That's a particularly big shift in careers, but your happiness is important to you and you're ready to try.

In the worst case scenario, your problem is likely that you want to become a painter but you don't know how. This is about as vague as you can get, but it's not a bad clue to start with. If you don't know how to do something, just ask someone who does. While it's unlikely that you won't be able to ask the advice of another painter, or read their advice in a book or on the internet, let's pretend those options don't exist. If all you have is yourself and need another clue, you can always look to a similar problem you've solved in the past, even if you didn't intend to solve it. Even though your experience as a real estate agent seems irrelevant, it's not. You still had to get that job, somehow, and maintain your position for several years. How did you do that? You had some knowledge that made you seem somewhat attractive to an employer and you convinced them to take a chance on you. Throughout the years you gained experience and success, making it easy to find work and make money as a real estate agent. If you want to work as a painter, which is also a job, you need those same basic things. The problem, in the worst case, is that you are unemployable as a painter because you have no talent or experience. That's the real problem you need to solve.

How can we create a plan to make your dream of becoming a painter come true? We know he the problem is that you don't have the requisite experience or talent to become a painter, so what is the most urgent need? You need to gain experience and talent. Once you have those things, you need to use that experience and talent to find work and become more and more successful. Your plan might look like this:

This is a pretty basic plan, but that's the idea. When you're breaking down a problem into a plan, you only want to get as specific as is necessary to move forward. If you get too specific, surprises will often trip you up. If you're not specific enough, you won't know what to do next. The goal is to create steps that keep you moving but don't trap you when the situation changes. Being too narrow-minded with your goals can make it easy to miss the right choices .

All you really need to do to solve any problem is distill it into its simplest form, create a plan that consists of actionable steps to solve the problem, and make that plan flexible enough so that you don't become discouraged. Doing these things won't necessarily make the problem easier to solve, but it will clarify the unknown and provide a means of actually achieving the solution.

Got any great tricks you use to make problem-solving an easier task? Let's hear ‘em in the comments.

Photos by Francesco Pappalardo , Aviya Serfaty , F Delventhal , Monica Arellano-Ongpin , keith011764 , Dan Previte , and Stephanie Watson .

You can follow Adam Dachis, the author of this post, on Twitter and Facebook . If you'd like to contact him, Twitter is the most effective means of doing so.

Active Presence

Facilitation Tools: Systematic Problem Solving

facilitation tools systematic problem solving

This facilitation tool is for solving big, seemingly intractable problems. Systematic Problem Solving provides a structured approach to identifying and solving a problem. It can be used with many of the previous facilitation tools discussed in this series. 

The Process

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Check out other posts from this blog series:.

Facilitation Tools: Root-Cause Analysis

Here, we illustrate seven basic principles of root-cause analysis as a process tool for effective meeting facilitation...

Facilitation Tools: Priority Setting

Setting priorities is an important part of getting work done - in fact, it's an important life skill too! Here's an effective tool every facilitator ought to have at hand.

Facilitation Tools: Multi-Voting

Troubleshooting is an extremely useful facilitation tool that enables you to avoid potential barriers to success...

Government of Western Australia Department of Health

Problem solving

Sometimes, it is not enough to just cope with the problems – they need to be solved.

Most people engage in problem solving every day. It occurs automatically for many of the small decisions that need to be made on a daily basis.

For example, when making a decision about whether to get up now or sleep in for an extra 10 minutes, the possible choices and the relative risks and benefits of obeying the alarm clock or sleeping later come automatically to mind.

Larger problems are addressed in a similar way. For example: “I have tasks that need to be done by the end of the week. How am I going to get them all done on time?”

After considering the possible strategies, 1 is chosen and implemented. If it proves to be ineffective, a different strategy is tried.

People who can define problems, consider options, make choices, and implement a plan have all the basic skills required for effective problem solving.

Sometimes following a step-by-step procedure for defining problems, generating solutions, and implementing solutions can make the process of problem solving seem less overwhelming.

Six step guide to help you solve problems

Step 1: identify and define the problem.

Step 2: Generate possible solutions

Step 3: Evaluate alternatives      

Step 4: Decide on a solution      

Step 5: Implement the solution

Step 6: Evaluate the outcome

Problem solving is something we do every day.

Some problems are small or easily solved - others are more complicated and can seem overwhelming.

One way of tackling problems is to use a specific and systematic problem solving procedure. If you’ve tried to solve certain problems without much success, try these steps out and see if they help.

Learning to solve problems effectively will help you to minimise the level of stress in your life and improve your overall sense of well-being.

Try it out and see.

Where to get help

Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI)

See your doctor

Visit healthdirect (external site) or call 1800 022 222, mental health emergency response line (mherl).

This information provided by

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This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

Related sites

Link to HealthyWA Facebook page

Department of Health

The Lean Thinker

Thoughts and Insights from the Shop Floor

Systematic Problem Solving

If I were to look at the experience of the organization profiled in the last three posts “A Systematic Approach to Part Shortages” I believe their biggest breakthrough was cultural. By applying the “morning market” as a process of managing problems, they began a shift from a reactive organization to a problem solving culture.

I can cite two other data points which suggest that when an organization starts managing problem solving in a systematic way, their performance begins to steadily improve. Even managing problem solving a little bit better results in much more consistent improvement and less backsliding. Of course my personal experience is only anecdotal. That is certainly true by the time you read it here as I try to filter things. But consider this: The key difference with Toyota’s approach that Steven Spear pointed out in “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” (as well as his PhD dissertation) was that the application of rules of flow triggered problem solving activity whenever there was a gap between expected and actual process or expected and actual outcome.

Does this mean you should go out and implement morning market’s everywhere? Again, based on my single company data point, no. That doesn’t work any more than attaching kanban cards to all of your parts and calling it a pull system. It is not about the white boards, it is not even about reviewing the problems every day. Reactive organizations do that too. In most cases in the Big Company that implemented morning markets everywhere, that is what happened – they morphed into another format for the Same Old Stuff.

Here are some of the things my example organization did that I think contributed to success in their cultural shift.

I think this is an important point because too many meetings get bogged down with people talking about problems, and speculating what the causes are. That is completely non-productive.

By blocking out time, they were able to establish some kind of expectation for productivity. After that, if problems were accumulating faster than they were being cleared, they knew they had a methods or resource issue. The same was true for their other tasks which were worked on during the rest of the day.

This was the start of establishing a form of standard work for the problem solvers.

21 Oct 08 – There is more on the subject here and here

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Possibly interesting related posts, 5 replies to “systematic problem solving”.

I have had the morning market approach fail completely. The root cause is a lack of systematic problem solving skill. Just as you shouldn’t implement an andon until after you design the system to respond, don’t create a morning market until people know, understand and are able to actually do systematic problem solving.

What is systematic problem solving? If there is no standard work for problem solving it will not be systematic. With no standard work, it will depend on individual abilities and motivation, and it will vary significantly. With high variation it can’t be managed and it can’t be iimproved.

Start of with PDCA and 5Whys. And get started soon because it will take a long time.

The group in the story had the same problem. As they started assigning problems, they realized that even the “professional problem solvers” lacked a systematic approach to go about it.

Their response was really cool. They applied PDCA – maybe without realizing it. Since the leadership and a couple of key managers were very committed to making the morning market concept work as a matter of principle, they took a look at what was keeping it from working (lack of problem solving skills), and addressed it. They organized a problem solving / troubleshooting course for the manufacturing engineers and key managers and supervisors.

But beyond taking the class, since they had done it more or less as a group, everyone was grounded at the same time. They challenged each other to follow the process. When someone wasn’t, they asked the questions posed by the method in the course, and got each other on track. The morning market sessions were powerful for this because they were a public, and daily, “CHECK” on following the agreed-upon method.

This clearly doesn’t work everywhere, but in this case it did, and it made a huge difference in the organization’s overall performance.

Thanks for the info. on systematic problem solving. After reading the article, i have realized the importance of follow-up- as prescribed in the P-D-C-A cycle. Many of our problem solving attempts have been aborting simply because we have never gone past the Do part in the cycle! Thanks once more.

Cyrus Karanja,

Process Improvement Leader, Nampak (K) Limited, Thika, Kenya, East Africa.

Hi , i have a question ,i need your advise on which lean methodology we should apply for going on lean direction in an industry which does only prototype manufacturing.

your inputs would be appreciated.

regards vishaank

I sent you an email directly. – Mark

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