BACK TO BASICS
Solving the Problem
Brush up on your problem-solving skills with these methods
by Tom Sheffrey
For years, I sought to solve problems only to find out that the issue I was addressing was not the primary issue. Because of this, I felt the need to share some key problem-solving skills. Here they are:
Stay out of the box—This is, perhaps, the most important problem solving skill of them all. People will come to me and say there is a problem being caused by this or that and ask me to solve it. This type of approach, which I call "jumping in the box," shuts down the brain so you’re only evaluating "this" or "that" when the root cause of the problem, and therefore the solution, could be something entirely different.
Say I invite your over for a BBQ. When the meat is ready, I build a box and ask, "Would you like a hamburger or a hot dog?" Are those the only two choices? Well, those were the choices I suggested to you, but if you are not that hungry, you may only want half of a hamburger. If you are extra hungry, you may want both a hamburger and a hot dog. Of course, you could always opt out in favor of a salad and some fruit. There are several choices as long as you stay out of the box and think about choices other than this or that.
Go to the data, not the information—Information is derived from data, but as most of us learned in school, secondary sources are not as good as primary sources. Information is a synopsis of data that has often been misinterpreted. Never trust the information, always find the data and do an analysis to discover the information yourself.
Don’t work alone—Find a person with whom you can brainstorm and collaborate. Even if that person is on the other side of the world and you have to communicate via telephone conversations, email or Skype, it is far better than working alone. When working on a quality issue, it is best to find another quality professional who will understand your jargon and methods.
Ask a subject matter expert (SME)—You need an SME to help you understand the process and how it is supposed to work. That person also can direct you to other organizations that may have faced and solved a similar problem.
Go back to the beginning and ask what changed—This is a basic diagnostic tool that seldom gets used. "What changed?" should come off your lips almost immediately.
Step away—If you can, take a break from the problem and let your subconscious go to work. It is amazing what solutions will pop into your mind when you are not even thinking about the problem.
Ask the right questions—A question asked in the right way points to its own answer. This is part of root cause analysis (RCA). But if you are not doing RCA for your current problem, this thinking skill might be missed. Always be mindful that a question asked correctly will give you the best answer.
Just recently, for example, my wife asked when an ASQ exam I was proctoring would be over, so I told her that it is over at 1 p.m. After talking to the examinees, going to FedEx and the post office, I got home around 2 p.m. to an upset wife and cold soup. She thought I would be home by 1:15 p.m. She actually wanted to know when I would be home, but didn’t ask me that question. To be fair to her, I also failed to ask why she asked me the question in the first place. Had I known, I would have told her 2 p.m.
I enjoy problem solving, as most of us in the quality profession do. By remembering these skills, I can use quality tools such as RCA, logic modeling and the theory of innovative problem solving to work on real problems, instead of wasting time attempting to fix the wrong thing.
Tom Sheffrey has a master’s degree in science project management and an MBA from the University of Alaska in Anchorage. Sheffrey is a senior member of ASQ, an ASQ-certified quality manager and auditor, and a Project Management Institute-certified project manager and scheduling professional.