Problem Solving

Problem? What problem? Problems are not really problems – they’re improvement opportunities...although I will admit that they don’t always feel that way at the time. But the reality is, problems can exist, and if we use effective problem-solving skills, tools and techniques, we can significantly improve the situation. So here are the top 10 tips for improving your problem solving:

  1. Find the problems! Some will make themselves obvious, but some require a bit of seeking out. Be clear about what you are trying to achieve, why you are trying to achieve it and how you are going to do it. Then monitor and record what is actually happening. Any differences between the goals and the reality are problems.
  2. Be selective. Don’t try to solve every problem – at least not straight away! Prioritise them in terms of the benefit the problem is blocking and the urgency.
  3. Look for the cause. The previous two steps are only looking at symptoms. Cures should be focused on the causes, so the next step is to explore those. Techniques like Why, why? and creating 'cause and effect' (fishbone) diagrams will help. Try to find one or two key factors that you think are the main contributors, and focus on them.
  4. Get creative. Don’t worry about solving the problem, instead, concentrate on finding ways of shifting the factors identified in the previous step. Don’t analyse solutions, just generate lots and lots of them. Use group techniques like mind maps, metaplanning or visioning. Very often, the crazier the idea, the more relevant it is in solving the problem.
  5. Reduce the number of options. When you’re fed up with generating options, sort through the ones you’ve got. Look at key measures the solution needs to achieve (time, cost, quality) and discard those that don’t fit. Listing pros and cons will help reduce the options further. Consider using a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) for smaller numbers of options.
  6. Pick a solution. Selecting a way forward might be within your authority, or you might need to escalate the final choice. In the latter case, offer a range of options that have differing strengths. It’s usually worth expressing a preference yourself and making a recommendation.
  7. Plan how to do it. Once the solution is chosen, you’ll need to sort out how it’s going to be implemented. Identify the individual tasks involved and their order, along with time, cost and resource requirements, and make sure that the plan fits within any constraints of the business.
  8. Do it! A bit obvious, but it’s important to keep an eye on your solution to make sure it’s heading the way you want it to. Adjust as necessary – this will mean frequent monitoring and review of the situation. It may also mean you need both the determination to see it through and a flexibility to change tack if necessary.
  9. Make sure that it has worked. Once the task is complete, check the initial problem and make sure the solution has brought it within acceptable levels. Perfection is rarely cost-effective!
  10. Learn. No matter how many times you use these tips, this will always be the last step. Look back over what you’ve done to identify ideas for future improvements.

Des Whitehorn

Des Whitehorn is the Training Principal of Zee Associates ( She can be contacted on 01825 733621 or