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May 8, 2017 Biz Books

9 steps to better problem solving

“Stop Guessing — The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers by Nat Greene (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $19.95).

When we look at problems, we see their effects and begin guessing at what caused them. Guessing, whether based upon prior experience of supposition, often leads to treating the symptoms (i.e. what can be seen) versus the real source(s) of the issue. By treating the symptoms, you're solution-guessing, which results in developing a workaround that usually “kicks the can down the road” and eventually fails. Greene offers a holistic approach characterized by understanding symptoms are interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole. Here are his nine interrelated behaviors:

1. “Stop Guessing.” and 2. “Smell the problem.” — Look for the real causes. Think like a doctor who diagnoses a patient's problem by looking at its symptoms from various aspects. They examine the outward signs and probe deeper through batteries of tests. Similarly, in business, it's usually not just one thing that causes a problem. Working backwards through all aspects of the issue by defining the “who, what, when” allows you to assess the domino effect of interactions, decisions and implementation. This allows you to identify and track patterns of both success and failure (i.e. when things started going awry).

3. “Embrace your ignorance.” — You don't know what you don't know. Think about that. When solving problems, it's easy to frame them in terms of “what worked before” when dealing with similar issues. You must recognize that no situations are alike, and ask questions that identify the unique aspects of this situation.

People often hesitate to ask questions for fear of appearing dumb. That's wrong-headed. What would you think of a doctor who didn't ask you questions about your symptoms?

4. “Know what problem you're solving.” — When a problem definition is an assumption, problem solvers “gallop toward the entirely wrong cause with unjustified confidence.” This leads to investing people, time and money into a venture that won't find the cause.

Thinking of the problem as a variable, rather than an absolute, makes it “immune to assumption.” Example: There's a problem with on-time distribution. Recognizing that the system has numerous moving parts you can separate its variables and begin the process of assessing the acceptable and unacceptable ranges for each.

5. “Dig into the fundamentals.” — Albert Einstein said: “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.” Look to the fundamentals of the “prime movers” (e.g. people, processes, technology, etc.) that control the out-of-range variables. This narrows your search for the problem's root cause(s). When analyzing information, remember: “Correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation.”

6. “Don't rely on experts.” — That doesn't mean that you don't use subject matter experts (SMEs) to obtain relevant information. It does mean that you don't rely on them to solve your problem. Every organization has its unique culture, people, processes and procedures. You can't expect a SME, even an internal one, to understand how parts outside their area of expertise may affect the problem.

7. “Believe in a simple solution.” — If you've really found the problem's root, “simple” presents itself. The more complex the “fix,” the less likely you found the root; resorting to “overkill” becomes very expensive and time consuming, and may spawn other problems.

8. “Make fact-based decisions.” — When you've identified an out-of-range variable, gather its facts by asking questions about what affects the variable. Beware of relying solely on statistical data because it can't explain relationships between people and processes.

Also, separate real fact from those colored by personal or groupthink preferences. If you can't, you'll be making opinion-influenced decisions, which often won't solve the problem.

9. “Stay on target (remember 1, 2, 5 & 7).” — By developing an extensive list of all possible problem influencers, determining root cause becomes more difficult and time consuming.

Greene uses business and daily life cases to illustrate his “9 Behaviors”.

Jim Pawlak is a nationally syndicated book reviewer.

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