Five-Step Problem-Solving Method

Problems occur in all parts of one’s personal and business life. Many people think that they are good problem solvers without a structured process, method, or model. That may be true, on their own. Working in a group or team is served by a bit more structure.

A good, five-step problem-solving method looks like this:

  1. Defined the Problem
  2. Analyze the Causes
  3. Identify Solutions
  4. Develop an Implementation Plan
  5. Implement and Assess the Effects

1) DEFINE THE PROBLEM

The first step is to write a statement of the problem. This is critical. One team called me in to help them because they were stuck. I started out by asking someone to tell me the problem. A person on the right side of the room yelled out “The problem is yada-yada.” A person on the left side of the room shouted, “No it’s not! The problem is na na na na.” I said, “Your first problem is that you don’t know what the problem is.”

The problem definition should use specific and measurable terms and be objective. Focus on the problem definition and don’t start on its causes, yet. The team needs to be open to perspectives and new information from all the members of the team. Examples could include current results, desired results, or political information.

The team needs to understand that all parties involved in the problem and solution have a stake in it. Good listening skills are essential.

2) ANALYZE THE CAUSES

Next, what contributes to the problem? Brainstorming tools work well in this step. Of course, the brainstorming process demands that all perspectives are heard and considered without judgment or fault finding.

Contributing items need to be prioritized. Those having the greatest impact should be prioritized. The idea is to identify the few items that have 80% of the impact (aka 80/20).

The root cause of those top priority and greatest impact items should be investigated. The “5 Whys” technique is very effective.

3) IDENTIFY SOLUTIONS

The team needs to agree on the root causes to be addressed. They should list as many ideas for solutions as possible. Brainstorming techniques work effectively.

The team should develop and agree upon a list of criteria for analyzing the possible solutions. Using those criteria, the potential solutions need to be analyzed using the criteria (i.e., trade study). The analysis should consider cost, schedule, risk and the impact on suppliers and customers.

4) DEVELOP AN IMPLEMENTATION PLAN

The team should develop a plan for implementing the chosen solution(s). A good project plan must consider the scope, schedule (sequence, milestones, timing of activities), cost (funding, resources), and risk of implementation. The implementation plans need to identify a chosen strategy (e.g., Pilot, Parallel System, “Big Bang”). Roles, responsibilities, and required action items need to be assigned. Metrics and measures are essential.

Finally, communicate the plan to all stakeholders.

5) IMPLEMENT AND ASSESS THE EFFECTS

The team should regularly review progress toward the goals of the Implementation Plan. Measure the new performance and behaviors. Adjust the plan, as necessary. Celebrate progress and success. Review lessons learned.

As the team completes each step, they need to say “thank you” to everyone who participated.

NOTE: Problem solving is not always possible. A strong environment of trust and open-mindedness must be in place.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mr. Czerniak retired after a successful career that culminated in fifteen years of experience as an internal consultant and “change agent.” He is currently a volunteer at the Macomb-Oakland University Incubator, SCORE, and the Troy Historic Village and Historical Society.

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