There are many approaches to problem-solving, however the most useful and efficient methods may be simpler than you think. Of course, recognizing and accepting the actual problem you are facing is particularly important.
For example, on April 11, 1970 the world saw one of the most Earth-gripping failures of technology ever experienced up until that time. Apollo 13 had left the Earth’s orbit, and was committed to a three-day journey to the Moon, when one of its oxygen tanks exploded due to a design flaw.
It took every engineer NASA had at their disposal, using every ounce of skill they possessed, to solve this completely unforeseen problem. There was no task avoidance or placing blame among the crew. They essentially “rolled up their sleeves” and worked to solve the problem, and they were successful because they knew how to work together.
In this article, we will identify the nature of problems we may encounter on a professional level, and determine the most helpful and effective ways to become a true problem-solver.
What is a problem? It’s a combination of two things: Objectives and Obstacles. If your objective is to walk to the store and buy a quart of milk, and you do walk to the store and buy a quart of milk, without any obstacles to overcome, then you never had a problem.
If, on the other hand, you forgot your wallet, there are a number of options available to you. You could consider:
• Retrieving the wallet
• Convincing the storekeeper to let you pay tomorrow
• Getting cash from your bank, where they know you by sight
• Phoning someone to assist
• Stealing the milk, etc.
Strategies and Choices
Clearly, some choices are better than others. How do you cope with a problem? Let’s consider a problem such as diminishing sales.
Product “A” has always been a good seller in the past, but sales are down 25% in Q1, and orders for Q2 and Q3 are far lower than last year at this time. What is the problem? It’s not that sales are down; that is merely a consequence. We need to understand the elements involved.
Understanding Elements of Problems
Isolating contributing factors relies on asking the right questions. It can be a solo forensic analysis, or a team-enquiry, but you need to understand your own objectives in order to ask the right ones. Begin with the observation that sales for product “A” have diminished.
Did the quality of product “A” decrease because the process broke down? If so, can that area be strengthened?
Perhaps it was replaced with another product that fulfills the need better? Maybe it was a premature announcement about a product improvement that caused people to stop buying until the better version became available.
Was the product delivered late to market because of production delays? If so, was it a supply problem, a production failure, or a transportation/shipping error?
Developing Potential Solutions
Once you know what the elements are, it is time to seek help. Gather everyone’s input. Involve supervisors, co-workers, peers, salespeople, market analysts or whatever specialty is required to brainstorm and solve the issue.
Don’t forget to follow up with the same people once you’ve looked at the data, the possible solutions, and have a potential strategy in mind. Their experience may save you from misinterpreting the data and making a bad choice. Through experience, comes the knowledge to prevent you from having to solve the same problem all over again!
Making Your Choice
Implement the course of action you have chosen. Devise strategies for accountability, new processes, and more communication to forestall similar problems from arising. That means seeking input from employees for monitoring and reporting on the process.
Those most actively involved in the day-to-day operation will often have the best ideas. And that is true whether it is the shop floor, the accounting department, or your sales force.
This is a single example of problem solving, but it is widely applicable to just about every problem. For example:
If you have an employee that is disruptive, or is compromising your operation, you apply the same rules.
Is it incompetence, boredom, personal problems, burn-out, or conflicts with supervisors or underlings?
Confer with others, as appropriate, for best practices. What actions can/should you take to solve the problem?
3. IMPLEMENT YOUR SOLUTION
Apply your solution by putting your plans in action.
4. Follow up
Check back to assess results and to avoid similar problems in the future.
Following these four steps, stage-by-stage as you work through a problem, will provide you with the best results. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every single problem, but there is this efficient methodology for arriving at the unique solution to your problem.
Use these steps properly, and you may just watch your problems resolve right before your eyes. If you lack an effective approach, problems just endure. If you want to solve them permanently, you need a plan; and this is it.
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