A guide to problem solving

problem solving

Problem-solving is bringing a group of individuals together to analyze a situation, determine the real problem, look at every possible solution, evaluate each of the solutions, and choose the best one for their purposes.

Why managers need to know how to solve problems

Managers should learn this skill because it will improve solutions to problems while increasing the motivation and performance of employees. This system provides a greater number of creative solutions. When there is one person thinking of the alternatives he or she may have his or her blinders on and see only a few of the obvious solutions. When people have a brainstorming session, they come up with better ideas and are willing to take greater risk with the solutions. Once someone suggests a solution it is no longer “his” solution, it is “theirs” (i.e. the group’s). One person’s suggestion could very easily make someone else think of something that he or she would never have thought of on his or her own. This brainstorming causes one alternative to trigger another one and pretty soon the alternatives come faster than they can be written down. After all the alternatives are presented, the group needs to evaluate them. The saying “I never thought of it that way” is a perfect example of how many different minds can make others see things they never saw before. Having people present who are very knowledgeable in different areas contributes to the variety of viewpoints considered.

The problem-solving process will most likely increase the motivation and satisfaction not only of employees but also of management. It will give the employees a chance to voice their ideas and be listened to. This will also give them a feeling of participation by having input into the solution.

If the management’s and employees’ motivation and satisfaction increase, so will their performance. “A happy worker is a productive worker” does not always hold true, but usually does. Workers who are part of a problem’s solution will work hard to make sure that their solution is successful. This process increases their performance and will cause the implementation of the solution to go through more easily.

When managers should use problem-solving

It is important not only to know why to use problem-solving but also to know when to use it. When the situation calls for more minds, problem-solving should be used. The process should only be used when the time is plentiful. It takes a long time for everyone to say what he thinks and therefore this process will be successful only if it can be followed through to completion.

Employee commitment is a must. If there is a problem that the employees do not care about, it would not be sensible for them to be involved in the problem-solving process.

How to solve problems

The real success in problem-solving lies in how to do it. If the procedures are not followed correctly, the entire method will fail. There are seven steps for problem-solving:

1 Establish goals
2 Identify the problems
3 Identify the constraints
4 Identify alternatives
5 Evaluate alternatives
6 Select the best solution
7 Create an implementation

All of these steps need to be followed in order and should be completed thoroughly.

“The problem-solving process will most likely increase the motivation and satisfaction not only of employees, but also of management. It will give the employees a chance to voice their ideas and be listened to. This will also give them a feeling of participation by having input into the solution.”

In the first step (establishing the goals) there are two areas that need to be examined. First, the people need to know the reason for the meeting. For example, “The reason we are meeting today is that our company is having a problem, and I need your help in solving it.” Next, let the participants know what should be accomplished at the meeting. One example of this would be to make up an agenda and let them know what will be covered and the order the discussion will follow. This will help keep the meeting on track in case someone starts to move to other steps too quickly.

The next step (identifying the problem) is one of the most easily forgotten. A person may think he or she knows what the problem is when all he or she really knows is what the symptoms are, not what is causing them. The main failure in problem-solving is jumping over the stage of identifying the cause of the problem. One needs to state facts such as, “productivity is down 30 percent from last year”.

The third step (identifying constraints) involves setting any limits that there may be on the solution. Examples of these could be money, time or man-hours.

Following the constraints stage, the next step is to identify solutions. In this step, there is no evaluation of any kind. If someone starts to evaluate a solution, simply ask them to hold off any evaluations for the moment. Write down every suggestion submitted, because none is too foolish to be listed.

After all the possible solutions have been listed, attention is given to evaluating them. In this stage take each solution one by one and evaluate the pros and cons. At this point there are no solutions that belong to any one person; they are now the groups. Be careful not to make anyone defend his or her suggestion. Politely throw out any that are not feasible.

Next, pick the best solution. It can be a single solution or a combination of solutions. Make the choice by trying to see what the majority feels. No matter what, do not take a vote because there will be some winners and some losers. Instead say, “I can see that most seem to agree on solution 3, so let’s try that one and see how it works.” This will allow those who do not agree to bow out without feeling that they lost. This might help them be more supportive of the chosen idea.

Finally, the implementation needs to be designed and established so people know what to do. The steps are:

1 What needs to be done
2 How it should be done
3 Who should do what
4 When it needs to be done
5 Where it should be done
6 What the budget is

Effective problem solving enhances an organization’s productivity. Everyone gains when it is used.

This article was originally published in the Journal of Workplace Learning Volume 9 Number 3.The authors were Jay T. Knippen, Department of Management, College of Business Administration, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA and Thad B. Green, President of Thad Green Enterprises, Dunwoody, Georgia, USA.

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