5 Problem solving tools (how to’s and videos)

Working at a clients office a few months ago I was a little surprised by the question “so which is the best problem-solving technique?”

Well, that got me thinking.

Great problem solving is a learned skill and is usually a process that follows a set of steps to bring about the resolution of the issue you’re facing.

While you might think that managing a business is all about keeping your customers and finance people happy (and it is) there’s usually a huge element of problem-solving required.

Ask most people in your workplace if they solve problems as part of the daily routine and they are likely to respond with “absolutely” but it surprising about how few businesses have a process for this – leaving it to chance.

Companies without a consistent problem-solving approach often find that they dabble in a few never finding quite the right route to drive the appropriate behavior.

So in this article, we’ll be looking at 5 problem-solving tools.

For any business to be either successful or effective (check out this Forbes piece on leadership problem solving ) the team running it has to be super effective at solving problems and therefore the processes behind it have to be super robust and thought out.

In this article we’ll look at 5 methods which are:

* 8D
* Fishbone analysis
* A3 Problem solving

Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of views about which is the most effective process, (some say certain methods are suitable for particular industries i.e. manufacturing or service related) so taking the time to establish the right method for you is important.

While we can debate the best technique, there is no doubting the worst. Plowing headlong into the issue and solving the first thing that strikes you as the root cause without analyzing any data or doing any proper reviews is not likely to drive resolution of your issue.

Alas, while this is tendency is far too common, this is rarely a successful method and often ends up causing more issues that you started with.

We’ve already covered some elements of problem-solving in previous articles, ( you can find our A3 template here for example – An A3 report) and here’s our post on creating an 8d report)

The thing about problems is that they ARE problems because at first appearance we may not fully understand how to solve them.

It’s important to recognize that problems happen all the time AND they represent a superb opportunity for the business to learn from them and improve.

The importance of the problem statement!!

I can’t stress this enough, be completely clear about the problem statement use facts and data to articulate it for example

Our delivery performance last month failed to hit our target of 90% On time and instead achieved 50%

Our delivery performance isn’t very good.

A weak problem statement is likely to confuse the team trying to resolve it and not help them articulate when it’s fixed. Consider these questions

* What should it be
* What is it
* When should it be like that
* Who does it impact & how does it impact them

What makes a good process:

Finally, before we get into the 5 problem-solving techniques let’s take a quick look at what makes a good problem-solving process? I’ve listed below the 7 principles of great problem-solving.

* The process facilitates a team approach (which includes open communication between functional groups).
* It requires the “team” to describe the actual conditions of the situation (the problem) clearly and precisely
* it allows everyone to “see” the issue by way of the problem-solving process
* It uses Data and analysis to explain the status of the process and impact of any change
* It contains steps that drive the identification of the cause
* It’s a linear process containing clear steps. The effectiveness of the process is diminished if steps are skipped
* it improves the teams (and businesses) effectiveness at problem-solving

OK, So let’s look at our 5 methods.


Perhaps the simplest Problem-solving technique is the 4 step PDCA process (or Plan Do Check Act).

PDCA is strictly speaking a continuous improvement methodology that can be utilized for problem-solving. It’s best known as one of the process improvement methods that have sprung from Toyota.

You can usually find PDCA being used for:

* Continuous improvement.
* Process design and development
* Implementing change.

But it’s also adept and dealing with problems.

PDCA has embedded within it a Review the data & Do something methodology so lends itself very well to reviewing the impact of decisions.

it has four stages

Plan – Assess the problem and develop a plan of what to do (note you’d expect to do some root cause brainstorming at this stage.
Do – Execute the plan
Check – Gather data and monitor the results of the remedy put in place
Act – Adjust the process as necessary based on the Check phase

Although you can generate ideas around the “plan” phase – It’s downside is that it doesn’t explicitly have root cause definition steps, although you could use tools like Fishbone analysis (see below) alongside it.

The beauty of PDCA is that, by it’s cyclical nature, it drives correction through review and observation, allowing the process to be monitored and tweaked along the way.

The downside is that it does require the generation of a hypothesis of what’s going wrong, and you might find yourself implementing temporary fixes on the route to finding the right one.

If the team find that the problem has not been eradicated on the first attempt then you know the improvement is not driving the result you thought it would and therefore you need to run through the process again passing through the appropriate Plan – Do – Check – Act steps.

As I stated above, strictly speaking, it’s not a specific problem-solving tool (for more info check out this link https://ianjseath.wordpress.com/2011/11/07/pdca-no-good-for-problem-solving/ which goes into some of the issues PDCA has when used for problem-solving which include:

2/ 8d

8d is another structured problem-solving tool that follows a series of process steps to find the root cause of the problem and then look to implement a corrective action

The 8d originated from Ford Motor Company

The 8D’s stand for the steps within the problem-solving process they are:

* D1: Create the Team
* D2: Describe the Problem
* D3: Deploy a Containment Action
* D4: Root Cause Analysis
* D5: Verify Permanent Corrective Action
* D6: Implement and Validate the Permanent Corrective Action
* D7: Prevent Recurrence
* D8: Congratulate the team and close the project

Similar to some of the other methods we describe in this article it’s a “complete” process that includes root cause definition and corrective action.

As a defined process it’s prescriptive (you have to do each step sequentially).

8d is a team driven approach which looks to contain the problem whilst developing the root cause corrective action. It relies on evidence and data to describe the problem and data to validate any corrective fix.

In our templates section, we show you how to build an 8d form that you can use within this process. (you can view it here https://sanzubusinesstraining.com/how-to-create-an-8d-report-template-in-microsoft-excel/)


Familiar to those six-sigma-ers the DMAIC problem-solving method stands for

* Define
* Measure
* Analyse
* Improve
* Contol

Like 8d it’s a sequential process.

The first part of the process is used to define the problem using Specific attributes

For example – you could say
“Delivery performance is not as good as it could be”
“Delivery performance was at 55% against a target of 80%

In all the problem-solving tools mentioned in this article using specific details is crucial in driving the right outcome. Defining the problem *should* include a set of criteria that is not being met and should describe the current status. Vagueness is a problem as it doesn’t provide the problem-solving team with a clear view of what needs to be done and why.

The second and third steps measure and analyze. Data can be captured at the source of the issue or through existing KPI’s. Whilst your business may have existing KPI’s which could be used, part of the measurement phase is to define if you need any additional metrics to assist in the problem-solving.

By analyzing the data the team can determine whether the issue is a random event or part of a pattern?

Through your data capture and analysis, the team should have come up with a number of “improvements” or changes that can be made to process that affect the data. The improve phase includes the deployment of these improvements (usually one at a time in order to test and evaluate), measurement to understand their impact and then once a solution is finalized the control phase co-ordinates the introduction and sustainment.

4/ Fishbone diagram

Another popular problem-solving tool is that of the fishbone diagram.

You can see a video on it here

Whilst this one is not a complete problem-solving process per se it’s still a popular tool and can often be seen being used alongside other methods.

Otherwise known as a cause and effect diagram, the fishbone tool can be used to facilitate brainstorming and discovery of the root cause of the prolem.

You can see a fishbone diagram in the video we posted above.

The process commences with asking the problem statement – for example – “why is my delivery performance less than the target of 90%”

The fishbone tool then looks to categorize potential causes, these form the “bones” of the fish. These categories might be things like:

* Process
* resource
* Tools
* Plant & Equipment
* etc

Once the team has agreed the ‘categories’ they can start brainstorming the potential causes. For each cause identified the team is encouraged to ask why.

Once the fishbone has been completed the team are asked to prioritize a selection of the potential causes in order to validate them to understand the actual root cause.

As with many of the tools described in this article, one of the key first steps that the team undertaking the problem review is to agree on the problem statement (the why). Unsurprisingly this can often cause the most debate! What actually is the problem under review? These things are not always clear cut!

Fishbones are great and developing ideas around root causes, however, don’t explicitly analyze them and formulate improvement steps. As such the fishbone tool is usually an excellent companion to one or more of the other methods displayed here but on its own only “does what it says on the tin”.

5/ A3 Problem solving

A3 is another structured sequential process for solving problems.

You can see our A3 template here in our templates section (here A3 Template)

Similar to the other process methods described, ( and A3 is similar to PDCA albeit with some additions) there are series of steps the team follows that lead them from defining the issue, brainstorming a solution and then implementing it. The steps for this process are:

* Background – what is the problem and is there justification to resolve it?

* Problem statement – a short and precise definition of the problem
* Current state / Future state – what is the current state and what is the ideal state (this is key as it provides the team something to go back and check against to ensure they have resulted in the correct outcome).
* Root Cause Analysis – determining the root cause of the problem (associated tools like fishbone technique are often used).
* Countermeasures – determine the actions required to deploy the improvement.
* Deployment – deploy the countermeasures
* Validation – measure and analyze to ensure the countermeasures have had the desired effect and resolve the problem
* Follow up actions – for example, monitoring of the issue over a period of time to ensure the countermeasure effectiveness.

Problems with problem-solving

As you can see from the problem-solving process examples described above there is a raft of problem-solving techniques and tools. However, problem-solving is not without its issues no matter which tool you use.

All too often businesses fail on 5 simple steps

* They don’t’ define the problem effectively
* They want results to quickly and don’t spend time on proper root cause analysis
* They under-equip the problem-solving team
* They fail to effectively measure the results of the proposed benefit and * assume* the problem is fixed

and finally and most importantly
* they fail to learn from the problem and communicate lessons learned to the rest of the business allowing other similar issues to raise there head.


Hopefully, this article has shown you some methods that you can use in your own business to help resolve some o the problems you face.

Be sure to check out our Problem Solving Guide, it’s full of how to’s, templates and techniques.

The key to problem-solving is to spend time on the process and in particular the root cause analysis stage.

As ever we’d love your feedback in the comments section below.