Problem Solving Steps

By Martin Gilliard

A warm welcome to the problem solving steps web page.

You often hear people say that “There are no problems, only opportunities”.

Of course this is not exactly true it does however emphasise the fact that when problem solving we should look towards the positive aspects of what should be done right now rather than dwelling on the disruption that the problem might create.

Reasons for mistakes should be analyzed and efforts should be made to try and prevent others from making similar mistakes.

problem solving steps

(Photo Credit: d3 Dan)

In your day-to-day role you may be faced with a continuous stream of problems, when this is the case it is good practice to consider the following problem solving steps...

1. Define The Problem

The first and probably most obvious problem solving step is to actually define the problem.

Sounds obvious I know but it's a very important step that many people often overlook.

Think in terms of what has gone wrong or what is about to go wrong. Collect user or customer viewpoints / complaints of the problem if possible.

problem definition

(Photo Credit: EIT ICT Labs)

2. Define What Needs To Be Done

Think about both what needs to be done right now and in the future to deal with the problem.

Try and define what needs to be done in metrics if possible i.e. reduce the number of defects from 15 in a 100 to 1 in a 100 or increase speed of network to a minimum of 5 MB/s.

Get agreement from the person or people affected by the problem that getting to this agreed metric would be an acceptable solution.

3. Discover

Find out what has actually happened. Compare this to what your understanding is of what should have happened.

Stick to the facts here, people can be emotional and self-protective when it comes to problems. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes so that you can understand their motivations, thoughts and reasoning behind what led to the problem.

Again try and focus on metrics - try and translate complaints and other problem descriptions into actual measurements.

Analyse all the constraints that could affect the situation, both internal and external.

Document all of your discoveries with time, date and the source of the information.

discover process map

(Photo Credit: Julian Partridge)

4. Analyze

Pull out your documentation and start looking at the facts.

What is relevant to the problem?

Are there any obvious reasons why the problem occurred?

Record any assumptions.

If helpful put a process map together - highlight in red problematic areas.

analyze the problem

(Photo Credit: francois)

5. Consider Alternatives

Are there any alternative courses of action? If so consider the merit / value of each.

How well will each resolve the problem?

How much will each cost? Think of the quality v cost v time triangle - this can be a difficult juggling act and may require much communication with you major stakeholder. What is an acceptable level of quality? Increased quality often results in increased time and/or cost.

How complex are the alternatives?

Do the alternatives introduce any new problems? Or have additional, unconsidered benefits.

If you have many of alternatives then consider doing a QFD (Quality Function Deployment).

If you have one choice or another then consider doing a plus minus interesting analysis.

How will the various stakeholders react?

6. Develop Hypotheses

A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for what has caused the problem (the observed phenomenon in scientific speak).

7. Evaluate The Hypotheses

Look at your proposed explanations and try and determine what is true and false.

evaluate the hypotheses

(Photo Credit: Dave Dugdale)

8. Document Solutions

Document the various solutions you have considered, use diagrams if appropriate to provide additional clarity.

If you have original 'As Is' process maps of the problem now start putting together your 'To Be' process maps.

9. Scorecard


List your solutions in a spreadsheet, add weightings related to ease of implementation and quality of solution.

Then grade the solutions and multiply by the weightings. Total up and choose from the top two or three highest ranked solutions based on your knowledge, intuition and gut feel.

(Photo Credit: Terry Chay)

10. Project Manage

Create a detailed plan and allocate resources required to implement the plan.

Remember project management is a skilled discipline in itself so ensure your people managing the project are appropriately qualified to effectively see the project through to successful implementation.

11. Control

The final problem solving step is to monitor the implementation.

Evaluate the success in terms of ensuring that it continues to solve the problem.

If you have been focussing on one or more metrics as a means for determining whether the problem has been fixed or not then consider using control charts produced on a regular basis to highlight that the fix is still within desired specification levels.

control chart

A Control Chart - (Photo Credit:

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