Problem solving model – Everything you need to know

We’ve discussed problem-solving a fair bit here on this site covering how to use the principles of a problem-solving model, with examples & tools like 8d problem solving, 7 steps problem solving to general problem solving techniques like our 5 why’s template. However, it’s still surprising to see why so many businesses still elect to go about solving business issues in an ad hoc manner, without recognising the benefits that a systematic approach can bring.  

All too often you see business leaders charge off in a direction (often led more by gut-feel than data) only to eventually realise that they’ve made a mistake and wasted time and effort whilst not resolving their issue.

One of key success factors in problem solving is the method used, utilizing a problem solving model can help greatly.  In this guide, we’ll look at 

  • What are problem solving models
  • Why you should use a problem solving model
  • Some examples of problem solving models 
  • The benefits of using problem solving models and an appropriate process to help you resolve issues. 
  • Some of the pitfalls and common problems when using problem solving models
  • What key elements make problem solving projects a success 

So, let’s get at it!

What is a problem-solving model

Ok so the first question is what is a Problem solving model?

A Problem Solving model merely refers to a systematic, step by step method that can be used to resolve problems.

The Problem solving model typically has a number of stages as per below.

1/ Define the problem
2/ Define the should be state
3/ Capture data & measure the problem
4/ Determine the root cause
5/ Devise corrective action(s)
6/ Deploy Corrective action
7/ Evaluate

There are a number of tools associated with the model, these typically follow the various steps. One example is the seven step problem solving technique, which offers 7 systematic steps that take you from problem identification through root cause analysis to corrective action. 

When using a problem solving model, you and your team follow a series of defined steps in a particular sequence to bring about a resolution to the issue that has arisen.

The alternative to not using a model, is simply, mobilising a team and launching after a believed “fix”, usually without analysing the problem in too much depth or reviewing any appropriate data or fully understanding about whether the fix will work or not – “but hey it looks right and it’s better than nothing!”

Why you should use a problem solving model

Where a business has identified problems and issues and is perhaps driving various continuous improvement projects, delivering results at the first attempt is crucial.

Failing to deliver results is not only disappointing but can drive serious business issues in terms of Quality, Finance and Customer retention.  Severe problems not only result in business challenges but can in their worst cases end your business so getting your problem solving process right is essential.

As we pointed out in our introduction racing after a believed fix can often result in missing crucial aspects of the issue often leading to further cost and schedule impact further down the line, usually when you find your proposal doesn’t entirely fix the issue and you end up doing further work.

a) When the process isn’t performing as expected and the resolution isn’t obvious. 

b) When there is a consensus that there is a problem to solve

c) When after attempts at fixing the problem, there is still evidence of the issue occurring 

Example problem-solving model & tools

Problem solving model & Tools

There are a number of popular problem solving models, below we’ll list some of those commonly used.  (Note this list isn’t exhaustive but gives a flavour of what’s out there (if you have a favourite that’s not listed, let us know in the comments section at the end of the post).

1/ 8d – 8d refers to the 8 disciplines of problem solving which utilizes a systematic methodology for resolving problems and issues.
2/ 7 step problem solving model
3/ 5 step problem solving model • Identify the problem, Analyse the problem, Plan, Implement the solution, Evaluate.
4/ Creative Problem Solving, • Clarify the problem, Generate ideas, Develop plan/Ideas, Implement.
5/ Team based Problem solving model • Identify issue, Develop Hypothesis, Discuss/select solution, Develop plan & Implement, Evaluate and revise
6/ 9 Step Problem Solving model • Understand the problem, Consider opinions facts & opportunities, review and see issues from all angles, Root cause analysis, develop & review alternative solutions, rank solutions, decide on solution, assign responsibility, evaluate results.
7/ The 5 Why Tool– while not strictly speaking a problem solving model, 5 why is a tool often used in root cause analysis that usually features in many problem solving tools

There are various others and you’ll usually find that they resolve around a theme of – analyze the problem, root cause analysis, corrective action, evaluate.

Key Benefits of using a problem solving model:5 reasons why using a problem solving model works

OK so given the plethora of problem solving models out there, let’s dig a bit deeper and look at the key reasons why utilizing one of these models works better than using other ad-hoc methods.

1/ Higher chances of success due to embodiment of root cause analysis 

As we discussed from the outset, there are two choices when it comes to problem solving

  1. Believing you know the answer and then going after it without evaluation or thinking of potential consequences
  2. Working through a series of steps to evaluate and decide on a course of action

Sadly, effective root cause analysis takes time and many businesses may not have the patience to go through this stage believing that a “do it now” approach is required.  However true root cause analysis through data analysis offers a higher chance of identifying cause(s) of the problem leading to more complete solutions.

2/ Problem solving models are collaborative

Involving stakeholders in a team based environment offers many enhancements over one or two individuals chasing after a solution.  Utilizing inputs from a broad group, many of which should be close to the problem itself allows for greater number of ideas and details about the problem and solution.

3/ Problem solving model is an evaluation led process 

Within many of the problem solving models, evaluation steps are built in to review the corrective action & implementation allowing for the team to review work being done and assess it against expected results supporting development and “tweaking” of the implementation to suit the results obtained.

4/ Process utilizes data to drive results

The biggest advantage of problem solving models vs “fire and forget” methods is that decisions are based on facts and data which lead to the solutions being implemented.  When you contrast this with “fire and forget methods” these traditionally rely on gut feeling and are unlikely to utilize data or analysis in the development of solutions.  Clearly utilizing data, particularly in the development of root cause analysis offers a significant advantage as it takes what is actually happening in the workplace, and then uses that data to help understand possible root causes.  Models can then be drawn up, utilizing the data, to evaluate different solutions allowing the project team to select solutions that have a high possibility of success.

5/ Problem solving models usually develop multiple possible solutions, and prioritise corrective action based on highest chances of success.

Finally, problem solving models typically utilize a collaborative approach to identifying solutions often resulting in a variety of options.  While these solutions can be prioritised (with one or two being implemented) this doesn’t mean the others are merely discarded, but are kept on the back burner and can be utilized further when the solution implementation is evaluated.

Key problems to look out for using a problem solving model

Of course, just by following something you’re not always guaranteed of results so let’s now take a look at why problem solving projects sometimes fail.  It’s well worth reviewing this because by understanding what goes wrong you can engineer your own projects reducing the risk of these issues occurring.

1/ The team don’t follow the method

It sounds simple, but the first crucial step in any problem solving project is to follow the process.  There are numerous problem solving models to utilise as we detailed above.  Spend some time evaluating them so you select the model that’s most appropriate for you.   

Take the time at the beginning of the process to inform your team how the process will proceed, who’ll do what and when, and how you’ll evaluate during and at the end of the process.

Map out the steps against a timeline, being clear on who’s doing what so people can visualize it.

Don’t proceed until there is a rudimentary understanding by the team.

Do not be tempted to skip steps!!

Monitor adherence to the process during the project.

2/ The brainstorming solutions part fails

Most models include an element of brainstorming to capture potential causes of the problem (or solutions) Despite the fact that everyone thinks brainstorming is easy, it is in fact a key area where many projects fail – why?  here’s a few reasons

* The one with the loudest voice wins often causing team members who might have good things to say being drowned out.

* Your team are awful at assessing the brainstorm results

* Your team isn’t broad enough in functions and has a narrow view of likely causes/issues.

3/ The team chase after the first likely solution

There is often a tendency to jump to the first solution dreamt up, deploy it and move on without first assessing the consequences and whether it’ll in fact work.  

Whilst time constraints might make it difficult – it’s vital to take your time and assess various possible fixes ensuring that you select the most appropriate solution before moving to the deployment phase.

If it helps use a tool like a decision matrix to help analyse what’s been put forward and select an appropriate fix.

4/ Failure to capture multiple issues

Ahhh….how many times have I seen continuous improvement teams think that there is only one cause to a problem.  In complex situations, you might find multiple contributory causes to a problem.  By selecting only one to “fix” you may not drive the results you require and may not fix “everything”.

None of the models described above imply a “one solution to rule them all” approach.  Where there are multiple causes to a problem it’s a good step to assess the likely impact of each and the result of any required fix that you might deploy thereby empowering your resource decisions.

5/ The team don’t analyse data

Without data, fixing problems is guesswork.

All of the models above imply the utilization of data as part of the problem solving process, you should consider that the first step in any continuous improvement project is analyse the data.  

* What is the desired state?

* What is the actual state?

* What trends are there?

* What KPI’s are in place that can be utilised?

* What should the data be after the proposed fix?

* How long will that take?

* etc etc etc

Get your hands on good quality data and use it to empower each stage of your problem solving project.

6/ The business loses interest

Whilst most continuous improvement projects get launched in a fan fare after time it’s natural that if left unmanaged interest could possibly wane with a focus on the next big thing.

The results of which are usually that resources get pulled from one project for another and the improvement tasks are left floundering.

Maintaining an appropriate level of interest is as much down to stakeholder management as any thing and the project leadership should consider from the outset how interest will be maintained and senior stakeholders interest kept.

7/ Lack of stakeholder engagement

Linked to the above – stakeholder management principles should apply to your project both in terms of engaging both management & workers. 

I’m always surprised how many projects don’t engage the people at the heart of the process who work it every day and are likely to have credible input into both the root cause and deployment.  Whilst it’s tempting to look from up high and think you can spot the fix that’s not always realistic and engaging those in the know is key.

8/ Results of “fix” aren’t monitored to ensure success

Again – a really common failure – how many teams spend loads of time up-front but then fail to monitor the success of what they’ve implemented – perhaps it’s been a great success but perhaps it’s crashed and burned following the deployment!  Having an appropriate KPI in place to monitor the success of your continuous improvement endeavour is vital in ensuring you’ve achieved what you set out to.

9/ Fixes aren’t supported with sufficient resources & funding

Again, a really common issue.  Businesses recognise they have issues, usually have sufficient resources to do the upfront work in reviewing the issue and suggesting a solution but then fail to effectively resource the deployment team.  You’ll often find this team is responsible for deploying numerous continuous improvement fixes and is simply spread to thin to effectively deliver.

10/ Actions aren’t tracked & progress isn’t monitored

You can follow models like 7steps/8d etc but if you fail to document and track what you’re doing there is a significant likelihood that your project will slip.  Staff typically have a workload that extends beyond your improvement project and you’ll most likely face conflicting priorities, tracking actions and owners is key to keeping on top of this so that if particular tasks are slipping you can reach out for help needed as required.

Gearing your up problem solving model  

So given these risks what should you do when starting out?  How do you ensure your use of a problem solving model is a success?

1/ Select an appropriate Problem solving model from the variety of tools available.

2/ Map the process out and communicate it so your project team understand it.

3/ Ensure key stages have accountable people leading them.

4/ Communicate to stakeholders what will happen & when & how the problem model will help.

5/ Draw from a broad base of stakeholders for your team

6/ Continuously evaluate your activity, introduce gate reviews after each step in the model you’ve chosen to review progress.

7/ At the end of the project review lessons learned and feed them back into your problem solving model so that the business can learn, develop and improve it’s process.

Final thoughts

Problem solving happens in all businesses and an ability to react appropriately and utilizing a methodical approach is vital and can offer a serious competitive advantage to your organization.

Hopefully this guide has offered you a good introduction in how you can use a problem solving model and has armed you with enough knowledge to give it a try.

Before I finish, I’d like to add one final (perhaps obvious) point. Make sure that whatever model you choose to use that you document the “What” and “how” parts of the process.  While problem solving may seem obvious to those close to it, the whole purpose of using a model is that enables you to use a broad spectrum of people in the process and by clearly documenting how you’ll use the model and who will do which aspects then your team will clearly understand the task ahead of them.

As ever we’d love to hear from you on your own experiences.  What problem solving model has your business followed?  What’s worked, what hasn’t?  How have you measured your success during your project (KPI’s, Data analysis?, communication feedback?).

Still have questions? Fire up the feedback comments below or message us via Twitter.