4 Popular Problem Solving Techniques in Management

Problem Solving TechniquesHow many times have you encountered a self driven, smooth running machine which can perform well, endlessly? Well, let us spare you the agony of mulling over that question. The answer is never. The idea of perpetual motion may sound good for sci-fi plots but in actuality it is quite untenable. No equipment, no tool, no team and no project can be assured to have endless success, and momentum, sans any form of hiccup.

Problems are an unavoidable part of any work place and are those that make our jobs challenging. However, solving, or even attempting to solve, those problems, can make you a more capable worker than the one who cruises through easy tasks, avoiding problems at all costs.

What makes problem solving an even more crucial skill for managers is their job description. Managers are required to coach, inspire, motivate and help their teams to succeed.

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As a part of that very job description, and the accompanying hefty salary, they are required to assist their teams out of the occasional puddle of setbacks.

And that is exactly why problem solving requires techniques to make the attempts fruitful. So if your usual technique is to pull your hair out and wail at the top of your voice, you might need to acquaint yourself with some proven, and well established, ways to deal with problems.

Here, in this article, we will talk about the various ways to approach a thorn in your management vision, to lead your team towards success.

The first step, no matter what you do is to define your problem.

What is the problem statement?

Once that is agreed upon, the stage is set to peel away the layers to get to its root cause.
 

Problem Solving Techniques to help managers solve issues

 

The 5 Whys Technique

To imagine how this works, think of a toddler with a curious mind.

Don’t put that bag in your mouth

Why?

‘Coz it is bad for you

Why?

‘Coz it is made of plastic

Why?

‘Coz plastic makes it easy to carry things

Why?

‘Coz plastic doesn’t degrade

Why?

‘Coz it is unnatural and oh well, an environmental hazard

And there, you have it! A 3 year old’s way to the root cause of pollution.

The 5 Why method was the brainchild of Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of why you can Innova your family all together to your weekend destination. He was a proponent of getting down to the manufacturing floor and here out the story from the people directly, at the scene of the action. The speciality of this method is that it doesn’t need sophisticated data collection means, experimentation or statistical tools. It is the raw deductive ability of asking the questions and only moving on to the next, once a factual response is received. The drill down could take 5 Whys or more but it could be a quick way to spot the cause of the problem. If not, more rigorous methods are needed.
 

Appreciation

This one aims to ask So what instead of Why. Think of the 5 Why technique as inspired by a toddler, with this one by any snarky teenager. After identifying the problem, you can investigate its implications and begin to understand what solution you will need to focus on.

For instance, you have to attend a show and you are running late.

So what?

If I take the shorter, more popular, route, the traffic might be too heavy.

So what?

So I might need to think about an alternative route. But it may be about a mile longer.

So what?

What if there is traffic on that road too and I lose out on time and distance?

So what?

Maybe I should divide it into two trips and take the train for the busiest route.

It is a way to assess all the aspects, you can think of, to reach a feasible solution.
 

Cause and Effect Analysis

This is a visual tool to map out your problem, its influencing factors and their individual cause and effects. Also known as Ishikawa diagrams, after Kaoru Ishikawa, a pioneer in quality control management, it lets you define a problem with a straight line and then branch out the possible factors involved in the problem, on either side. The image looks like the carcass of a fish, thus giving it its more popular name, Fishbone diagrams. Having recognized the factors, you can then further branch into the various causes that could influence each individual factor.

It is not always easy to recognize the factors that can influence the birth of a problem. But once you are aware of the actual problem, say a manufacturing issue, you can begin to look at all that can contribute to it. The clients, the people involved in the process, the process itself, or the environmental limitations beyond everyone’s control. With all the factors chalked out, you can have a way more structural issue to analyze. Much better than blindly beating about the bush.
 

Root Cause Analysis

Having defined your problem and identified its symptoms, the next knee-jerk reaction could be to apply a band aid solution. But that doesn’t assure the lack of a problem reprisal. If you want to remove the possibility of a recurrence of the problem, you should aim to nip the root cause in its bud. And that’s where root cause analysis shows up like a champ. There are some basic steps in this analysis.

  • This is where you define the problem and its symptoms. And if you have been an alert pupil, you should already have done that.
  • The second step is to collect data for a significant period, showing the beginning and effect of the problem. Creating a timeline lets you get a definite picture of what could be the issue.
  • Laying down the factors as in what all could be contributing to the problem.
  • Finding the cause of each of those contributing factors, thus leading to the original culprit.
  • Fixing the cause and then investigating whether it is likely to occur again.

Take for example the simple case of your phone getting discharged rather too quickly. The problem has an easy solution – find a power outlet and plug it in. But that doesn’t, of course, keep it from losing juice in a haste. So the proper way to deal with the problem should be to collect the data – like how the battery used to last for 12 hrs, until the middle of February. Since then it is draining in 4 hrs. The possible cause could be,

  • You dropped your phone and now it is slowly becoming a lemon.
  • Your battery is leaking out and repeated charging is just its life support.
  • The other event that fits the timeline is that you downloaded an app, on Valentine’s day, to play you love songs every hour.

On investigating the factors that could be contributing to the problem, you didn’t find any other sign of poor phone performance. Nor did exchanging the battery with a known healthy phone make a difference. Perhaps it was the mushy app after all. A little probing did reveal its appetite for power usage. So there, you have it. Remove the app and your root cause is solved. It is highly unlikely to recur unless your get the love fever again!

There is no reason why you cannot combine the salient elements of each of these techniques to improve your deduction skills. There is no law against being thorough. In fact these are simply the most popularly used techniques. There are more out there to make the process, of problem solving, not a waste of your precious managerial time. The idea is to be able to handle a problem as a logical issue rather than a universal conspiracy against you. And in fact, these tools are handy for just about anyone.

So, don’t beat yourself up when faced with a challenge. It is just an exciting opportunity to exercise your newly acquired problem solving skills. Just lean back in your ergo chair and enjoy your job. And if an issue shows up, start with an order of freshly grilled fish!

Sources:1,2,3,4


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Rakhi Acharyya
Rakhi Acharyya

Rakhi is a freelance writer, a Physics PhD from Michigan State University, an ex-teacher and a former employee of Corporate America. Follow her on Twitter.

1 Comment

  1. Sarojini Badoni says:

    Hi Rakhi
    I liked your article.I think 5 Why and So what technique sounds very interesting.

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