Updated: Sep 23
Problem solving on the fly is an exceptional skill, but being prepared for potential problems is more valuable by far. Creating a problem solving process can help you identify potential problems earlier, solve those issues if and when they come up, and give your team a sense of comfort and assuredness in the fact that they are prepared for any situation that arises.
When the oxygen tank blew up 200,000 miles from Earth, the Apollo 13 team discovered one problem after another. With almost every system on the spaceship signaling disaster, how would the team proceed?
Start With the Meta Decision
As with Apollo 13, in so many problem situations, people work hard and do their best to acquire information. Everyone reports what they know about what is wrong. The group starts suggesting solutions; everyone trying to help. But having lots of unconnected data points and lots of individual solutions is generally not the way to go.
Gene Kranz, Flight Director for Apollo 13, provided the leadership to avoid the first common error in problem solving: that is, how should decisions be made. He quickly announced how the team was to proceed. There was no question about who would make the critical decisions. While making the meta decision (the decision about decision-making) is critical, it is too often made very late in the process. Time and resources are wasted trying all sorts of approaches before someone finally steps in to make the meta decision.
Recognize and Label the Problem
When many things seem to be going wrong, it is easy even for a smart and highly motivated team to miss key aspects, maybe the most critical ones. Each individual symptom can seem so harmful that the team wants to get busy working on each one. In the Apollo 13 case, several symptoms seemed deadly, but the most critical problem was one that did not immediately seem to be a life or death issue: the problem of electric power use and reserves.
Be Wary of Narrow Definitions
Too often, problems are labelled in terms of their symptoms and are narrowly defined. Only when the problem (identified as a collection of symptoms) is being worked on does the real nature of the underlying problem become clear.
Check That The Right People Are Involved
Political power and influence often determines how the problem is identified. This may lead to certain experienced but unpopular or under-valued people being excluded from the problem-solving effort.
Ask Non-Confirming Questions
Too often, readily available data are accepted as complete. Teams fail to spend the time and effort to ask non-confirming questions (see Thinking Traps part 1) and acquire data from that process.
Map The Process
Another step to take to be sure you are working on the right problem is to map out the process or processes in which the problem has been located. You will usually learn a lot by simply taking the time to flowchart how each process works, how it intersects with other processes, and where the process risks are likely to occur.
Understanding the connections between steps and results can reveal more specifically where to focus your efforts. If problems can be defined as where expected results do not equal measured results, the process map should reveal which steps are leading to the variation in results that is unacceptable.