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Problem Solving and Decision-Making Skills

Problem Solving Techniques

Problem Solving Techniques

Effective and efficient problem solving is a prerequisite for organizational performance and success. If any commercial enterprise fails to identify problems correctly or fails to resolve them properly, sales, market share, expenses, customer and employee satisfaction, profit and shareholder dividends can all be adversely affected. Similarly, if other organizations like hospitals, government departments or fire services fail to identify problems effectively, the consequences are equally dramatic (sometimes in terms of human suffering).

The problem solving process

Perhaps the first “rule” of good problem solving is that it is an active process – one that is highly dependent upon asking questions, being curious, and being willing to admit you don’t know something.  Effective problem solving involves stepping out of your comfort zone and actively pursuing answers and information.  Henry Ford said:  Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.  This reinforces the same point – problem solving is an active, rather than a passive or even avoidant activity.  Rarely will you experience someone coming to you with the answer you are looking for – you have to go after it yourself, asking good questions wherever you can.

Problem solving is the process of moving toward a goal when the path to that goal is apparently blocked or uncertain. We solve problems every time we achieve something without having known beforehand how to do so. We encounter simple problems every day: finding seemingly lost keys, deciding what to do when our car won’t start, even improvising a meal from leftovers. But there are also larger and more significant “ill-defined” problems, such as getting an education, having a successful career, and finding the most productive projects on which to focus most attention at work. Indeed, the most important kinds of human activities involve accomplishing goals without a script. In this ever-changing, dynamic world we now live in, we might justly say that problem-solving ability is the cognitive passport to the future.

Problem solving tools

Although we can approach problem solving armed just with an open-mind and lots of well-targeted questions, the process is often greatly aided by using a problem solving tool or technique. This is not to say that all situations will require the use of a formal problem solving technique but these can be very helpful.  There are many different problem solving tools available but here are three popular ones:

  1. Flowcharts. Flowcharts involve creating a model that illustrates and analyzes the overall flow of activities, as in producing a product or service, for example. These “flows” are usually lines and shapes on a piece of paper that represent process steps in sequence or in order. The beauty of such charts when they are complete is that they illustrate where opportunity may exist to improve an overall process or function or to solve a problem in a creative or different way.
  2. Fishbone diagrams or cause and effect diagrams (also called Ishikawa diagrams).  A common use of the Fishbone, or Ishikawa diagram is in product design, to identify desirable factors leading to an overall effect. Cause-and-effect diagrams can reveal key relationships among various variables and possible causes provide additional insight into process behavior. Causes in a typical diagram are normally arranged into categories. The main categories used are:
    1. The 6 M’s: Machine, Method, Materials, Measurement, Man and Mother Nature (Environment)
    2. The 8 P’s: Price, Promotion, People, Processes, Place / Plant, Policies, Procedures & Product (or Service)
    3. The 4 S’s: Surroundings, Suppliers, Systems, Skills
  3. “Multiple why” charts. This is a relatively simple process in which you take a problem or challenge statement and plot it on a “multiple why” chart, tracing the problem back to its root causes, a technique used in quite a sophisticated way in some organizations (called root cause analysis).

Despite the fact that there are many other techniques than the three described here, learning to use one, two or all three of these is likely to assist greatly in dealing with many day-to-day problems, especially in the work situation. With practice, individuals can then research and start to use other techniques and become an expert contributor whenever a major problem needs to be addressed.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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