Problem Solving in a Changing Workplace

Sometimes problems spring from invisible sources, unwritten rules or unvoiced expectations. Obstacles that grow from such hard-to-define origins can be frustrating and difficult to overcome. Before we tackle the branches of such a problem (the actions we see), first we have to dig down and uncover the roots (the underlying issues) that are buried beneath the surface. Otherwise the problem will continue to be nourished by hidden agendas and unknown forces, and will blossom again and again.

Flickr/#3 Motivational Poster,Martino


The “How” Problem

When we first tackle problems, we often think of them in terms of “how” questions. How can we increase sales? How can we make people more accountable? How do we switch from our existing platform to the new one? When we look at a challenge from this perspective, the goal is pre-determined and our efforts become focused on the means of achieving that goal.

The “What” Problem

There is little or no diagnosis involved in looking at change as a “how” problem and solutions derived this way can often treat the symptoms of the problem, rather than the underlying issue. Alternatively, when we consider a challenge as a “what” problem, we focus on the end rather than the means. Asking questions like: What are we trying to accomplish? What will signal success? What specific changes are necessary? What will the new standards be? These “what” questions will bring our best efforts to bear on the desired ends and outcomes, rather than keeping us focused on addressing the visible effects of the problem which may simply recur once our attention shifts.

The “Why” Problem

If “how” questions focus on means and “what” questions focus on ends, what do “why” questions bring to our problem solving efforts? Asking “why” questions is the most powerful approach to problem solving, because they allow us to dig down into the ultimate source of a problem or the underlying purpose of a function. This uncovers root causes and makes it possible to consider new and better ways of doing things that would not otherwise be considered. The most powerful questions of all are questions like: Why is this happening? Why do we do this? Why do we do it this way? These are the questions that open the doors to truly creative problem solving and transformational change.

The power of “why” is well documented. In fact, the technique of “5 Whys[1], originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, was used extensively by the Toyota Motor Corporation in creating its world renowned manufacturing processes.

First Things First

They say that the first step in overcoming any weakness is recognizing that it exists. When it comes to problem solving, the first step in solving a problem may well be acknowledging its existence, but awareness alone is not enough. To begin the process of effective problem solving, first we must clearly define the problem, because the best solution(s) flow directly from a deep understanding of the problem itself. Without clear problem definition, progress is stifled by an excess of choice.

To arrive at this level of understanding, we have to dig deep. In addition to using the 5 whys to drill down into root causes, we have to review the facts surrounding the problem. But what are the facts? To be sure we are considering objective facts and valid information (rather than opinion and subjective evidence) we should always question the source by asking “how do we know this?” If no objective evidence exists to support claims, we must dig even deeper; or develop better ways to gather the valid information we need to define the problem, before attempting to solve it.       

Consider All Options

When working through a problem, get as many ideas on the table, from as many sources as you can, before considering possible solutions. Avoid jumping too quickly to problem resolution. Once focused on a particular answer, we stop seeing other options and our creativity becomes bounded by the parameters of that one solution: We may never know the brilliance we have left undiscovered. Many of us see a challenging situation through the filters of our own experience and skill set. As a result, we arrive at only those solutions that “fit” within our sample set. Sometimes this prevents us from recognizing the best option. Sometimes it prevents us from discovering any solution. Truly creative problem solving happens when we stay open to possibilities, draw on the contributions of many perspectives, and consider all options before choosing from among the best solutions.

Effective problem solving starts with an open mind and a willingness to draw on multiple perspectives.

To Recap

When it comes to problem solving in a changing workplace, here are a few important things to remember:

  1. Make sure you consider the why, what, and how of the situation
  2. In particular, use “5 whys” to get to the root cause of a problem
  3. Spend as much time as necessary to fully understand the problem before seeking solutions
  4. Consider all options before jumping to one solution
  5. Keep an open mind and draw on multiple perspectives

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[1] Empirical observation suggests that five is the number iterations that will generally reveal the root cause of a problem.

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