7 step problem solving technique

7 step problem solving technique

Whilst processes are generally there to protect us from issues (i.e. follow the process and get what you expect) unsurprisingly from time to time things go wrong and problems occur that affect either the output or the success of the process in question.

What do Business problems cause? Well, they can affect a whole host of things, from Quality, Schedule or Cost for example. Left alone they can impact both your customer and business and therefore resolving them is the appropriate route of action but given that there are a plethora of problem-solving tools available which one should you follow? What makes the 7 steps of problem-solving a suitable tool to utilize?

In this article, we’ll take a look at the 7 Step problem-solving tool, what it is, what the steps are, and how to avoid the key problems.

Firstly, let’s state the obvious when problems do occur it’s absolutely fundamental to have a structured method of resolving them. By providing structured problem-solving tools to your workforce, employees should be able to resolve issues in a timely and cost-effective manner and avoid stabbing around in the dark for a possible solution without having done the work to ensure it is.

Whilst we’ve covered more formal methods of problem-solving such as the 8d report, 5 whys (you can check out our post on how to create a 5 why template here) and others, the 7 steps of the problem-solving method represents another structured step by step process which can be used to analyze and resolve problems by uncovering root causes and helping to define corrective actions to fix the problem.

Why Structured problem-solving works

One of the main challenges with problem-solving is to avoid the obvious trap of thinking you know the answer and launching immediately into fix it mode. Unfortunately in many cases particularly in complex business situations the answer is rarely obvious and is often a combination of contributory factors that require a level of uncovering through following a step by step approach ahead of launching off and implementing a random “hit and hope” solutions.

The 7 step problem resolving solution offers just that a methodical approach that can be used to resolve issues by following a standard approach. It must be remembered that effective problem solving does take time. Also, consider that problem solving doesn’t have to be tied down to one tool and that you can choose to combine methods i.e the 7 step method combined with 5 why to help drill down and understand root causes.

The approach can be used in situations where you have large or small issues and works great in a team-based approach or if you’re working on your own as an individual.

What are the 7 problem-solving steps

Below is the list of steps associated with this tool

STEP 1: The Right Problem to Solve
STEP 2: Analyse the Problem
STEP 3: Define the Problem
STEP 4: Develop Opportunities (Possible Solutions)
STEP 5: Select the Best Solution
STEP 6: Implement the Solution
STEP 7: Evaluate and Learn

STEP 1: Identify the problem

The first step is to define the problem that you have.

Generating a robust problem definition is key to the whole process. Start your process with a poor problem definition and you’ll be wasting your time later on which is likely to result in you reworking some of the process steps – worse still you follow the entire process define a corrective action that results in other issues (or costs your firm money in implementation that may not recover!).

A good problem definition includes a clear description of the issue in contrast with the condition that it should be. For example,

  • The houses were all painted green instead of blue
  • The part was manufactured to a tolerance of 1cm instead of 1/2 a cm
  • The part included paint on areas identified by the drawing that should not include paint.

The above show clearly what’s wrong and contrasts the “current condition” with the “should be condition”.

Of course, you could use something like – “the part is manufactured incorrectly” but that would make both developing a solution and implementation somewhat difficult as it is not clear what’s wrong.

STEP 2: Defining your Goal

Once you’re aware of what your problem is the next step is to define where you’ll be at the end of your problem-solving process.

For example – let’s look at one of our examples from above
• The houses were painted green not blue.

Here the goal may be defined as “Problem root causes identified/rectified and all houses to be reworked and painted blue within the next 3 weeks.”

The goal clearly removes the problem and sets the end result to the desired condition.

Remember, your goal should be SMART (Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound).

STEP 3: Brainstorm the solution

Brainstorming is usually a group based method where through gathering ideas the team endeavors to find an answer to the specific issue or problem. Brainstorming usually requires each member of the team to put forward their ideas.

Ideas are usually captured on a whiteboard, list, or set of post it notes in order to then evaluate them.

With Brain-storming it’s important to ensure all members of the team have an equal voice and that collection of ideas is seen as the priority. Do not let people take over this by thinking they have all the answers (especially the management!!) – you may be surprised by who in the team comes up with best contributions.

STEP 4: Assess your solutions/alternatives

Following the brainstorming session – the next step is to evaluate each idea.

In problem-solving, the best method is to assess whether the idea impacts the believed root cause of the issue and if it does how. Generating ideas is great but if they fail to help fix the thing that’s actually going wrong then they are not going to help much. So initially challenging each idea’s effect on possible root causes is usually a good initial step.

Evaluation usually means a systematic approach to reviewing the positives and negatives of each solution put forward in order that the team can then select a final solution.

STEP 5: Select a solution

Once you’ve brainstormed the possible solutions and evaluated them, you need to pick one (or a collective of some) – this is usually the key element where some teams go awry by selecting solutions that may not have the desired impact.

Using a tool such as a Solution Selection Matrix can often help simplify the process and apply some rigor in ensuring this part of the process remains focussed.

What is a Solution Selection Matrix?

The Solution Selection matrix is a tool that can be used to help review each idea by a standard process and criteria. It’s typically a table that lists the possible ideas and then has columns that then helps you evaluate them.

The Solution Selection Matrix might include evaluation of things like

  • Ease of deployment
  • Cost
  • resource requirement
  • time to implement
  • Impact on stakeholders etc.

See below for an example matrix that demonstrates how this can be achieved.

Solution Selection Matrix Example

I’d recommend engaging your key stakeholders at this point to discuss the resolution to the problem, how you’ll implement and the impact on the implementation (discussing things like whether the implementation will take effect immediately or after a given time).

I’d also suggest that you review your KPI’s, to understand what the current situation looks like so that you’ll be able to easily demonstrate the impact post-implementation (and if you don’t have KPI”s you can always consider implementing some simple metrics at this point).

STEP 6: Implement

Once you’ve selected your solution it’s time to implement.

Here you should develop the implementation plan that takes you through the steps of the “fix” upfront of the deployment, this way the whole team understands what’s happening and how it will work. This also provides an opportunity to critique the timeline, resource requirement, and likely cost.

The plan is usually best combined with a RAIL (Rolling ActIons List) this explains what actions are active and who owns them and when they need to be done by. A simple implementation plan that shows target dates and owners is normally all that you require to help administer this stage.

Depending on the complexity of the solution you may wish to review possible risks up front of the deployment to assess where things might go wrong.

Don’t overestimate what you can achieve here, it’s best to be realistic, considering:

  • Who will implement
  • How you will implement
  • How you will monitor the fix
  • what budget/resources you might require to implement the fix
  • Will the fix start working straight away (if not when)

Management can sometimes have a tendency to think that when you come up with the “fix” it impacts straight away so it’s a good time to get everyone on the same page with what your implementation actually means and when results are likely to be seen.

STEP 7: Evaluation

The final stage is to evaluate your problem’s resolution with the key question being – did your problem-solving project drive the result you wanted?

If you have KPI’s you can track them against your fix, you might involve some stakeholder engagement to understand what the fix has meant for them and their views on the implementation, what worked and what didn’t so that you can evaluate your businesses process for next time.

Alternatives to the 7 problem solving steps.

As we discussed at the outset of the article there are a number of problem-solving techniques out there, from 8d to 5 why to SWOT etc, you can check some of them

Before you settle on an approach I’d recommend that evaluate some of these approaches, examining the pros and cons and how they might fare in your industry. As ever it’s likely that one size doesn’t fit all and you and always look to tweak the process whilst keeping the basic steps. Businesses are likely to be far more accepting of a structured process that gets improved upon over time than no process at all.

Got some thoughts on problem-solving, be sure to check out our Problem Solving Guide, perhaps you have a favorite tool or method? We’d love to hear about it, fire us up on Twitter, or our feedback section below.