Problem Solving In The Workplace

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TME-Becky-BarbaraWikipedia’s definition of problem-solving is used in many disciplines, sometimes with different perspectives, and often with different terminologies. For instance, it is a mental process in psychology and a computerized process in computer science. Problems can also be classified into two different types (ill-defined and well-defined) from which appropriate solutions are to be made. Ill-defined problems are those for which we do not have clear goals, solution paths, or expected solution. Well-defined problems have specific goals, clearly defined solution paths, and clear expected solutions. These problems also allow for more initial planning than ill-defined problems. Being able to solve problems sometimes involves dealing with pragmatics (logic) and semantics (interpretation of the problem). The ability to understand what the goal of the problem is and what rules could be applied represent the key to solving the problem. Sometimes the problem requires some abstract thinking and coming up with a creative solution. To expand on this further – Problem solving from a coaching perspective is the gap between the current situation and a desired outcome. It’s an ongoing process that is an integral part of work and life and maybe it’s time to look at it some a different perspective.

In this article, we will explore techniques for leaders, management and staff to identify and define problems, move from problem oriented to solution focused thinking and finally talk about creative solutions. Problems can be looked at through the lens that shows they are really opportunities. Lessons and growth both professionally and individually can come from problems. The learning comes from the process of addressing the problem; sometimes having to stretch us pass our comfort zones. Problems can point out blind spots and make us aware that we may be doing an OK job with a particular situation but we could do better.

Empowering Problems come in various sizes:

>> Big and complicated

>> Some more easily resolved

Big and complicated problems may take some time to resolve and should include other people to help resolve the problem. Easily resolved problems occur at any time and typically someone has the answer to the problem or a process/procedure that can be followed to get the resolution completed quickly. An example of this could be the power going out, and if there is a generator, getting it running as quickly as possible or going to a contingency plan that was created so clients/customers can be notified quickly and staff understands what they need to do.

Workplaces present ongoing challenges on a daily basis that require solving problems. The problems have to be dealt with constructively and fairly. Employees need necessary skills to identify solutions to problems through knowledge, facts, data, and the ability to think on their feet. They have to have the ability to assess the problem and then find solutions. Sometimes it’s very important to not try and tackle the problem by oneself but instead involve others which is called collaboration. When others are pulled into help, the first important step is to establish ground rules. Important ground rules include no criticism of an idea is allowed; strive for the longest list – go for quantity (brainstorming); strive for creativity – “wild and crazy ideas should be encouraged and build on ideas of others. Of course this way of thinking works on problem solving that doesn’t need to be done “right now.” An example of this could be a branch office that is uncooperative and continuously turns in reports late, there are poor morale issues, there is a lack of consistent communication with the branch manager and poor performance of the branch overall.

A problem solving technique that is very effective in working with an issue such as this is called the “Fishbone Diagram Technique” which breaks down Cause and Effect. This is how it works: Gather the people together who can work together to create a solution. Then define the problem or opportunity in a brief statement that all can agree upon. In the fishbone diagram, list potential causes to verify their relevancy and impact. You may want to gather data on some of these issues. Brainstorming begins with the mindset that any idea is allowed. Ideas come from these thoughts:

>> What the team knows

>> What the team needs to know

>> What the team needs to do

>> What the team needs to know how to do

A completed FISHBONE DIAGRAM example after facts and thoughts are mapped out looks like this:


After the data gathering, completing discussions through brainstorming and filling out the fishbone diagram, the next step is to evaluate the alternatives to the problem. There needs to be an explanation of the concept/thinking behind each idea by the person proposing it. Then expanding on these ideas and “bottom line” the issue. Next numbering and ranking what’s important to be considered is a helpful technique when reaching agreement on the best solution as a team.

Then it’s time to develop an action plan which includes Goals, Strategy, Timeline, Who is responsible and Expected Outcomes. This information should be recorded on flip chart pages (each page labeled by the categories above) or on a wipe board. Someone needs to take responsibility for compiling all the information, distributing it to the parties involved and getting agreement on when the solutions will be worked on and completed; by whom and most importantly…..everyone involved should understand why it’s important that this process is being done and how it impacts the company – if it gets done and if it doesn’t get done.

Accountability is a problem for many people; great intentions but “things slip through the cracks” at times because other things get in the way of “what I said I’d do.” It’s very important to designate someone to keep everyone informed and every task tracked and recorded. Reporting the impact of the completed solution should be conveyed to everyone involved as well when the solutions have been implemented. And, don’t forget to thank the team.

Being proactive is also important before any problems crop up, especially in strategic planning. One example is Solution Focused Thinking – where the emphasis is on when the problem does not occur. Create a roadmap to success and backtrack on what needs to happen from now to then. Focus on people’s strengths and resources to construct potential solutions. Ask effective questions rather than leading questions such as “why don’t you? OR “have you thought of this?” Building on this success, it’s good practice to ask “What are people doing right?” If there are exceptions to this, you ask “When is there a time when the behavior doesn’t occur or occurs less often?” Have discussions on these key questions so you can uncover information. Future focused questions include “What will you be doing differently?” “How will others know?” “What will they see or hear that will be different?”

As mentioned earlier, problems simply happen. What you do differently and proactively during the course of managing the problem(s) makes the difference of making smart decisions, involving others and creating successful solutions vs. taking on the task yourself and getting stressed in the process. Involving others to help create solutions allows for creative thinking and new ideas that possibly may never have been thought of in the past. Our problems can show the need to include others, can show us our strengths and our limits and be a resource for being better as professionals.

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