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Published on March 31, 2020

5 Steps (And 4 Techniques) for Effective Problem Solving

5 Steps (And 4 Techniques) for Effective Problem Solving

Problem solving is the process of reviewing every element of an issue so you can get to a solution or fix it.

Problem solving is a series of steps that you work through, covering multiple aspects of a problem until you can find a solution. Whether that’s in a group collaboratively or independently, the process remains the same, but the approach and the steps can differ.

To find a problem solving approach that works for you, your team, or your company, you have to take into consideration the environment you’re in and personalities around you.

Knowing the characters in the room will help you decide on the best approach to try and ultimately get to the best solution.

5 Problem Solving Steps

No matter what the problem is, to solve it, you nearly always have to follow these steps. Missing any of these steps can cause the problem to either resurface or the solution to not be implemented correctly.

Once you know these steps, you can then get creative with the approach you take to find the solutions you need.

1. Define the Problem

You must define the problem before you start, whether you’re solving it independently or as a group. If you don’t have a single view of what the problem is, you could be fixing something that doesn’t need fixing, or you’ll fix the wrong problem.

Spend time elaborating on the problem, write it down, and discuss so you’re clear on why the problem is occurring and who it is impacting.

2. Ideate

Once you have clarity on the problem, you then need to start thinking about every possible solution. This is where you go big and broad as you want to come up with as many potential solutions as possible.

Don’t just take the first idea; build out as many as you can as the more you create, the more likely you’ll find a solution that has the lowest impact on the team.

3. Decide on a Solution

Whichever solution you pick individually or as a team, make sure you think about the impact on others if you implement this solution. Ask questions like:

  • How will they react to this change?
  • Will they need to change anything?
  • Who do we need to inform of this change?

4. Implement the Solution

When you implement the solution, be prepared for feedback, and plan for this. When you roll out the solution, request feedback on the success of the change made.

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5. Review, Iterate, and Improve

Making a change shouldn’t be a one time action. Spend time reviewing the results of the change to make sure it’s made the required impact and met the desired outcomes.

Make changes where needed so you can further improve the solution implemented.

4 Techniques to Encourage Problem Solving

Each individual or team is going to have different needs and may need a different technique to encourage problem solving. Try one of these to stimulate the process.

1-2-4 All Approach + Voting

The 1-2-4-All is a problem solving approach that can work no matter how large the group is. Everyone is involved, and you can generate a vast amount of ideas quickly.

Ideas and solutions are discussed and organized rapidly, and what is great about this approach is the attendees own their ideas, so when it comes to implementing the solutions, you don’t have more work to gain buy-in.

As a facilitator, you first need to present the group with a question explaining the problem or situation. For example, “What actions or ideas would you recommend to solve the company’s lack of quiet working areas?”

1

With the question clear for all to see, the group then spends 5 minutes to reflect on the question individually. They can jot down their thoughts and ideas on Post-Its.

2

Now ask the participants to find one other person to discuss their ideas and thoughts with. They can be in threes if the numbers aren’t even.

Ask the group to move around to find a partner so they can mix with new people.

Ask the pairs to spend 5 minutes discussing their shared ideas and thoughts.

4

Next, put the group into groups of two or three pairs to make groups of 4-6. Each group shouldn’t be larger than six as the chances of everyone being able to speak reduces.

Ask the group to discuss one interesting idea they’ve heard in previous rounds, and each group member shares one each.

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The group then needs to pick their preferred solution to the problem. This doesn’t have to be voted on, just one that resonated most with the group.

Then ask for three actions that could be taken to implement this change.

All

Bring everyone back together as a group and ask open questions like “What is the one thing you discussed that stood out for you?” or “Is there something you now see differently following these discussions?”

By the end of the session, you’ll have multiple approaches to solve the problem, and the whole group will have contributed to the future solutions and improvements.

The Lightning Decision Jam

The Lightning Decision Jam is a great way to solve problems collaboratively and agree on one solution or experiment you want to try straight away. It encourages team decision making, but at the same time, the individual can get their ideas and feedback across.[1]

If, as a team, you have a particular area you want to improve upon, like the office environment, for example, this approach is perfect.

The approach follows a simple loop.

Make a Note – Stick It on The Wall – Vote – Prioritize

Using sticky notes, the technique identifies major problems, encourages solutions, and opens the group up for discussion. It allows each team member to play an active role in identifying both problems and ways to solve them.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a fantastic visual thinking tool that allows you to bring problems to life by building out the connections and visualizing the relationships that make up the problem.

You can use a mind map to quickly expand upon the problem and give yourself the full picture of the causes of the problem, as well as solutions.

The goal of a mind map is to simplify the problem and link the causes and solutions to the problem.

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To create a mind map, you must first create the central topic (level 1). In this case, that’s the problem.

Next, create the linked topics (level 2) that you place around and connect to the main central topic with a simple line.

If the central topic is “The client is always changing their mind at the last minute,” then you could have linked topics like:

  • How often does this happen?
  • Why are they doing this?
  • What are they asking for?
  • How do they ask for it?
  • What impact does this have?

Adding these linking topics allows you to start building out the main causes of the problem as you can begin to see the full picture of what you need to fix.

Once you’re happy that you’ve covered the breadth of the problem and its issues, you can start to ideate on how you’re going to fix it.

Now start adding subtopics (level 3) linking to each of the level 2 topics.

This is where you can start to go big on solutions and ideas to help fix the problem.

For each of the linked topics (level 2), start to think about how you can prevent them, mitigate them, or improve them. As this is just ideas on paper, write down anything that comes to mind, even if you think the client will never agree to it!

The more you write down, the more ideas you’ll have until you find one or two that could solve the main problem.

Once you run out of ideas, take a step back and highlight your favourite solutions to take forward and implement.

The 5 Why’s

The five why’s can sound a little controversial, and you shouldn’t try this without prepping the team beforehand.

Asking why is a great way to go deep into the root of the problem to make the individual or team really think about the cause. When a problem arises, we often have preconceived ideas about why this problem has occurred, which is usually based on our experiences or beliefs.

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Start with describing the problem, and then the facilitator can ask “Why?” fives time or more until you get to the root of the problem.

It’s tough at first to keep being asked why, but it’s also satisfying when you get to the root of the problem.

As a facilitator, although the basic approach is to ask why, you need to be careful not to guide the participant down a single route.

To help with this, you can use a mind map with the problem at the center. Then ask a why question that will result in multiple secondary topics around the central problem. Having this visual representation of the problem helps you build out more useful why questions around it.

Once you get to the root of the problem, don’t forget you must be clear in the actions to put a fix in place to resolve it.

The Bottom Line

To fix a problem, you must first be in a position where you fully understand it. There are many ways to misinterpret a problem, and the best way to understand them is through conversation with the team or individuals who are experiencing it.

Once you’re aligned, you can then begin to work on the solutions that will have the greatest impact.

For the more significant or more difficult problems to solve, it’s often advisable to break the solution up into smaller actions or improvements.

Trial these improvements in short iterations, and then continue the conversations to review and improve the solution. Implementing all of these steps will help you root out the problems and find useful solutions.

More Tips on Problem Solving

Featured photo credit: You X Ventures via unsplash.com

Reference

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Ben Willmott

Productivity and Project Management blogger for at work and at home

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Last Updated on January 6, 2021

14 Ideas on How to Measure Productivity to Make Progress

14 Ideas on How to Measure Productivity to Make Progress

Everyone has heard the term productivity, and people talk about it in terms of how high it is and how to improve it. But fewer know how to measure productivity, or even what exactly we are talking about when using the term “productivity.”

In its simplest form, the productivity formula looks like this: Output ÷ Input = Productivity.

For example, you have two salespeople each making 10 calls to customers per week. The first one averages 2 sales per week and the second one averages 3 sales per week. By plugging in the numbers we get the following productivity levels for each sales person.

For salesperson one, the output is 2 sales and the input is 10 sales: 2 ÷ 10 = .2 or 20% productivity. For salesperson two, the output is 3 sales and the input is 10 sales: 3 ÷ 10 = .3 or 30% productivity.

Knowing how to measure and interpret productivity is an invaluable asset for any manager or business owner in today’s world. As an example, in the above scenario, salesperson #1 is clearly not doing as well as salesperson #2.

Knowing this information we can now better determine what course of action to take with salesperson #1.

Some possible outcomes might be to require more in-house training for that salesperson, or to have them accompany the more productive salesperson to learn a better technique. It might be that salesperson #1 just isn’t suited for sales and would do a better job in a different position.

How to Measure Productivity With Management Techniques

Knowing how to measure productivity allows you to fine tune your business by minimizing costs and maximizing profits:

1. Identify Long and Short-Term Goals

Having a good understanding of what you (or your company’s) goals are is key to measuring productivity.

For example, if your company’s goal is to maximize market share, you’ll want to measure your team’s productivity by their ability to acquire new customers, not necessarily on actual sales made.

2. Break Down Goals Into Smaller Weekly Objectives

Your long-term goal might be to get 1,000 new customers in a year. That’s going to be 20 new customers per week. If you have 5 people on your team, then each one needs to bring in 4 new customers per week.

Now that you’ve broken it down, you can track each person’s productivity week-by-week just by plugging in the numbers:

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Productivity = number of new customers ÷ number of sales calls made

3. Create a System

Have you ever noticed that whenever you walk into a McDonald’s, the French fry machine is always to your left? 

This is because McDonald’s created a system. They have determined that the most efficient way to set up a kitchen is to always have the French fry machine on the left when you walk in.

You can do the same thing and just adapt it to your business.

Let’s say that you know that your most productive salespeople are making the most sales between the hours of 3 and 7 pm. If the other salespeople are working from 9 am to 4 pm, you can potentially increase productivity through something as simple as adjusting the workday.

Knowing how to measure productivity allows you to set up, monitor, and fine tune systems to maximize output.

4. Evaluate, Evaluate, Evaluate!

We’ve already touched on using these productivity numbers to evaluate and monitor your employees, but don’t forget to evaluate yourself using these same measurements.

If you have set up a system to track and measure employees’ performance, but you’re still not meeting goals, it may be time to look at your management style. After all, your management is a big part of the input side of our equation.

Are you more of a carrot or a stick type of manager? Maybe you can try being more of the opposite type to see if that changes productivity. Are you managing your employees as a group? Perhaps taking a more one-on-one approach would be a better way to utilize each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

Just remember that you and your management style contribute directly to your employees’ productivity.

5. Use a Ratings Scale

Having clear and concise objectives for individual employees is a crucial part of any attempt to increase workplace productivity. Once you have set the goals or objectives, it’s important that your employees are given regular feedback regarding their progress.

Using a ratings scale is a good way to provide a standardized visual representation of progress. Using a scale of 1-5 or 1-10 is a good way to give clear and concise feedback on an individual basis.

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It’s also a good way to track long-term progress and growth in areas that need improvement.

6. Hire “Mystery Shoppers”

This is especially helpful in retail operations where customer service is critical. A mystery shopper can give feedback based on what a typical customer is likely to experience.

You can hire your own shopper, or there are firms that will provide them for you. No matter which route you choose, it’s important that the mystery shoppers have a standardized checklist for their evaluation.

You can request evaluations for your employees friendliness, how long it took to greet the shopper, employees’ knowledge of the products or services, and just about anything else that’s important to a retail operation.

7. Offer Feedback Forms

Using a feedback form is a great way to get direct input from existing customers. There are just a couple of things to keep in mind when using feedback forms.

First, keep the form short, 2-3 questions max with a space for any additional comments. Asking people to fill out a long form with lots of questions will significantly reduce the amount of information you receive.

Secondly, be aware that customers are much more likely to submit feedback forms when they are unhappy or have a complaint than when they are satisfied.

You can offset this tendency by asking everyone to take the survey at the end of their interaction. This will increase compliance and give you a broader range of customer experiences, which will help as you’re learning how to measure productivity.

8. Track Cost Effectiveness

This is a great metric to have, especially if your employees have some discretion over their budgets. You can track how much each person spends and how they spend it against their productivity.

Again, this one is easy to plug into the equation: Productivity = amount of money brought in ÷ amount of money spent.

Having this information is very useful in forecasting expenses and estimating budgets.

9. Use Self-Evaluations

Asking your staff to do self evaluations can be a win-win for everyone. Studies have shown that when employees feel that they are involved and their input is taken seriously, morale improves. And as we all know, high employee morale translates into higher productivity.

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Using self-evaluations is also a good way to make sure that the employees and employers goals are in alignment.

10. Monitor Time Management

This is the number one killer of productivity in the workplace. Time spent browsing the internet, playing games, checking email, and making personal calls all contribute to lower productivity[1].

Time Management Tips to Improve Productivity

    The trick is to limit these activities without becoming overbearing and affecting morale. Studies have shown that most people will adhere to rules that they feel are fair and applied to everyone equally.

    While ideally, we may think that none of these activities should be done on company time, employees will almost certainly have a different opinion. From a productivity standpoint, it is best to have policies and rules that are seen as fair to both sides as you’re learning how to measure productivity.

    11. Analyze New Customer Acquisition

    We’ve all heard the phrase that “It’s more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep an existing one.” And while that is very true, in order for your business to keep growing, you will need to continually add new customers.

    Knowing how to measure productivity via new customer acquisition will make sure that your marketing dollars are being spent in the most efficient way possible. This is another metric that’s easy to plug into the formula: Productivity = number of new customers ÷ amount of money spent to acquire those customers.

    For example, if you run any kind of advertising campaign, you can compare results and base your future spending accordingly.

    Let’s say that your total advertising budget is $3,000. You put $2,000 into television ads, $700 into radio ads, and $300 into print ads. When you track the results, you find that your television ad produced 50 new customers, your radio ad produced 15 new customers, and your print ad produced 9 new customers.

    Let’s plug those numbers into our equation. Television produced 50 new customers at a cost of $2,000 (50 ÷ 2000 = .025, or a productivity rate of 2.5%). The radio ads produced 15 new customers and cost $700 (15 ÷ 700 = .022, or a 2.2% productivity rate). Print ads brought in 9 new customers and cost $300 (9 ÷ 300 = .03, or a 3% return on productivity).

    From this analysis, it is clear that you would be getting the biggest bang for your advertising dollar using print ads.

    12. Utilize Peer Feedback

    This is especially useful when people who work in teams or groups. While self-assessments can be very useful, the average person is notoriously bad at assessing their own abilities.

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    Just ask a room full of people how many consider themselves to be an above average driver and you’ll see 70% of the hands go up[2]! Now we clearly know that in reality about 25% of drivers are below average, 25% are above average, and 50% are average.

    Are all these people lying? No, they just don’t have an accurate assessment of their own abilities.

    It’s the same in the workplace. Using peer feedback will often provide a more accurate assessment of a person’s ability than a self-assessment would.

    13. Encourage Innovation and Don’t Penalize Failure

    When it comes to productivity, encouraging employee input and adopting their ideas can be a great way to boost productivity. Just make sure that any changes you adopt translate into higher productivity.

    Let’s say that someone comes to you requesting an entertainment budget so that they can take potential customers golfing or out to dinner. By utilizing simple productivity metrics, you can easily produce a cost benefit analysis and either expand the program to the rest of the sales team, or terminate it completely.

    Either way, you have gained valuable knowledge and boosted morale by including employees in the decision-making process.

    14. Use an External Evaluator

    Using an external evaluator is the pinnacle of objective evaluations. Firms that provide professional evaluations use highly trained personnel that even specialize in specific industries.

    They will design a complete analysis of your business’ productivity level. In their final report, they will offer suggestions and recommendations on how to improve productivity.

    While the benefits of a professional evaluation are many, their costs make them prohibitive for most businesses.

    Final Thoughts

    These are just a few of the things you can do when learning how to measure productivity. Some may work for your particular situation, and some may not.

    The most important thing to remember when deciding how to track productivity is to choose a method consistent with your goals. Once you’ve decided on that, it’s just a matter of continuously monitoring your progress, making minor adjustments, and analyzing the results of those adjustments.

    The business world is changing fast, and having the right tools to track and monitor your productivity can give you the edge over your competition.

    More Productivity Tips

    Featured photo credit: William Iven via unsplash.com

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