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Last Updated on January 27, 2021

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 steps cover multiple aspects of a problem that you can bring together to 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 the 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 problem solving 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 and understand 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 everything, 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 alternative solutions as possible.Don’t just take the first idea; build out as many as you can through active listening, as the more you create, the more likely you’ll find a solution that has the best 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

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

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.

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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 each of the problem solving steps. Try one of these to stimulate the process.

1-2-4 All Approach + Voting

The 1-2-4-All is a good 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 or two other people to discuss their ideas and thoughts with. 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.

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.

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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 to incorporate in the problem solving steps.

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[2].

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Problem Solving with Mind Maps (Tutorial) - Focus

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

    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 with the problem solving steps.

    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 favorite 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[3].

    The 5 Whys

      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 to be clear in the actions to put a fix in place to resolve it.

      Learn more about how to use the five why’s here.

      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 through effective problem solving steps.

      For the more significant or 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 each time.

      More Tips on Problem Solving

      Featured photo credit: You X Ventures via unsplash.com

      Reference

      More by this author

      Ben Willmott

      Productivity and Project Management blogger for at work and at home

      Why You Can’t Focus and 20 Things You Can Do to Fix It How to Compartmentalize to Live a Stress-Free and Successful Life 5 Steps (And 4 Techniques) for Effective Problem Solving How to Set OKRs to Keep Your Goals on Track 8 Essential Project Management Skills for Productive Work

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      Last Updated on April 19, 2021

      How to Use the 5 Whys to Get to the Root Cause of Any Problem

      How to Use the 5 Whys to Get to the Root Cause of Any Problem

      Do you take long to solve career or business problems? It may be time to learn how to use the 5 Whys to make the process simpler.

      Maybe you believe that you need to know 1000 techniques to solve problems faster. The truth is that there isn’t a single technique that can solve all your problems. But despite this reality, you can still solve most of your problems in an effective way.

      How? By leveraging Sakichi Toyoda’s 5 Whys technique. Toyoda used this technique for the Toyota production system, but you can apply it to most of your problems[1]. So, stop trying to memorize dozens of techniques and get ready to work smarter!

      What Is the 5 Whys Method?

      With the 5 Whys technique, you have to ask 5 questions.

      Simple, right? Whenever you’re facing a problem, ask what may have contributed to the current results. Then, continue asking 5 times, or until you reach the root cause.

      The 5 Whys | Find the Root Cause of a Problem Fast

        How do you know that this technique works? Well, Toyota has successfully implemented this technique to improve their assembly line. Now imagine what it can do to help you solve common problems[2]!

        The 5 Whys process isn’t complex, but it’ll take time to get used to. If you’re like most, you tend to jump at finding solutions when solving problems. Instead, start by asking one question each time you’re facing a problem.

        It can be for anything minor such as being stuck in traffic. In this case, your first question would be why you didn’t avoid traffic. Ask a single question for all your problems, and continue adding more until you ask 5 by default.

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        Eventually, you’ll know when to ask the 5 Whys and find a root cause to most of your problems. But, you don’t always have to work alone. When you work with unfamiliar topics, work with team members to brainstorm answers.

        If you want to know how to be a great team player, check out this article.

        For example, if you’re troubleshooting a bad marketing campaign for your business, work with your marketing team to find a solution. As a business owner, you’ll wear many hats but won’t be able to find a root cause to most of your problems alone.

        How to Ask the 5 Whys Efficiently

        Before you start asking the 5 Whys, you need to prepare to get the best results. Here’s the flow process for solving a real-world problem:

        1. Get the Right Resources

        You don’t know what you don’t know. So, gather information through books and online resources before solving a problem. You’ll find yourself researching more often for topics you’re not familiar with.

        If you don’t prepare, you’ll limit yourself to an ineffective root cause.

        You can also surround yourself with people who specialize in certain areas. This way you can work together with your group to find the best root cause of a problem.

        Your goal here is to feel comfortable with the questions you’re working with. Avoid answering questions you’re unsure of because you’ll most likely end up with a bad root cause.

        2. Understand the Problem

        Before you solve any problem, it’s important to know the nature of the problem you’re solving. This will help you avoid finding an irrelevant root cause.

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        When you define the problem, you’ll also avoid confusion when working with teams. For example, when working in teams, often it’s easy to assume that everyone is working on the same problem. But this isn’t always the case and can cause teams working to solve two different problems.

        3. Ask Your First 5 Questions

        Once you’ve spent enough time preparing, ask your first question. Instead of giving quick answers, brainstorm which answers will bring the most value. Each question depends on its predecessor, so give meaningful answers.

        The rule of thumb here is to keep repeating why five times until you’ve found a potential root cause. Typically, 5 questions or less is enough to solve the most common problems, but don’t limit yourself to 5 questions if it’s genuinely necessary to ask more.

        Instead, keep asking questions until you can’t anymore.

        4. Find Your Root Cause

        The main goal for using the 5 Whys framework is to end up with a root cause for the issue you’re experiencing. You should come up with an answer that helps you understand when/why the problem occurs.

        It’s also used to address high-level issues so that you can track your progress afterward. By addressing high-level issues, you’ll solve problems quicker before addressing the root cause.

        An Example of the 5 Whys

        Learning about the 5 Whys framework is great, but having real-world examples is better. Here’s an example you can use as a template for when you’re solving real-world problems:

        Problem: Employers haven’t called me back for an interview for the past 3 months

        • Question 1: Why is my resume not getting noticed by employers?
          Because it’s too generic and not showing any special skills for the roles you’re applying to.
        • Question 2: Why is my resume too generic?
          Because I want it to appeal to many professions.
        • Question 3: Why do I want to apply to many professions?
          Because I want to increase my chances of getting hired.
        • Question4: Why would applying to several professions increase my odds at getting hired?
          Because I wouldn’t limit myself to available job openings at one specific profession.
        • Question 5: Why would I limit myself to job openings available?
          Because there is a high demand for my profession.

        In this scenario, you’d stop at question 5 because you’ve found a potential root cause.

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        Since there’s a lot of competition for your industry, your resume needs to stand out. Who do you think an employer will hire, a jack of all trades or an expert in their profession?

        Whenever you’re working with a problem, take time to brainstorm the best questions. That’s because it’ll impact the quality of the root cause you’ll end up with.

        When Do the 5 Whys Not Work?

        As you’ve seen, the 5 Whys isn’t complicated and can be used for many kinds of problems, but it takes a lot of effort to execute correctly. When done right, it can help you find the culprit to most of your common problems. The problem is that this technique isn’t suited for every situation.

        Unreplicable Results

        You won’t be able to replicate the same results. Think about it: you’re creating your own questions and answering them in a unique way. No one else would be able to replicate your results for the most part.

        This means that even two teams working in the same environment will come up with two separate answers.

        Limited by the Knowledge Available

        As mentioned before, gather enough information when solving an unknown problem. The problem is that you won’t always have the best resources available. Because of this, you’ll limit yourself to the quality of your answers.

        If you’re ever facing an unknown topic, try a different problem-solving technique.

        Focusing on a Single Root Cause

        The main goal behind using the 5 Whys is to come up with a single root cause. But all problems don’t always have a single solution. For example, a marketing campaign can have a best, good, and worst case scenario.

        These limitations don’t make the 5 Whys a bad technique to use. Instead, they let you know how to use this technique more effectively.

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        The 5 Whys works best for improving processes and solving simple problems, but it falls short when working with complex problems. That’s why you’ll need to know other alternatives.

        For example, a company’s low customer response rate may be due to several factors. In this case, you’d choose a technique that’s better suited to solve complex problems. Determine which problems you face the most to know which techniques will help you the most.

        The Bottom Line

        Imagine conquering issues most people give up on.

        People would look at you and assume that you know 1000 ways to solve a problem. The truth is that not much has changed since you’d struggled with solving problems.

        But you’re now using a proven system that’s made your life easier.

        You’re a problem-solving machine.

        If you don’t believe this can be your reality, you’re wrong. You have what it takes to solve your problems, but you’ll need to practice. Start by asking one question today as you face a problem.

        Then, keep doing the same until you’re asking several questions for each of your problems. You won’t master the 5 Whys analysis overnight, but, with enough practice, this technique will feel more natural.

        More Problem Solving Techniques

        Featured photo credit: Startaê Team via unsplash.com

        Reference

        [1] Harvard Business Review: The Unimportance of Practically Everything
        [2] Harvard Business Review: The Five Whys for Start-Ups

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