You most probably have heard the old cliché “there are no problems, only opportunities.’ This might sound like pie-in-the-sky optimism to anyone stuck in the middle of a difficult puzzle or a stressful people problem. But by using the proven, logical problem solving and decision making system you indeed can create opportunities from problems. The biggest problem-solving mistake is dealing with the symptoms of a problem rather than its “root causes.” Sometimes even the “experts” don’t find the fundamental reason the problem exists right away. When symptoms are treated, “band-aid” decisions are made. Then old symptoms reappear, or new ones emerge, and the same old problem returns.
By taking the steps of systematic problem solving and decision-making you can prevent problems from recurring. They include:
STEP 1 : Problem Recognition
STEP 2 : Problem Labeling
STEP 3 : Problem-cause analysis
STEP 4 : Optional solutions
STEP 5 : Decision-making
STEP 6 : Action Planning
Problem solving and decision making begins by recognizing that a situation needs resolution. This boils down to listing of all hard and soft symptoms relevant to the problem. Even when the troubles are obvious, it is a good idea to start with Step 1. No matter how serious or stressful the first encounter with a problem may seem, it is usually only a symptom of the underlying trouble or real problem. Symptoms may be trivial, like one minor defect, or they may be serious issues that must be dealt with quickly, such as falling production levels. Regardless, they are often simply just side effects of the real problem that lies beneath the surface.
After completing Step 1, you should have a wealth of data on your problem. It may be confusing and you still may not know what kind of a problem you have. People may have different interpretations of the same issue. A problem will look different from different vantage points. Those doing the looking may label it with different words even though they’re talking about the same issue. Whether differences of opinions are about details or major issues, disagreement blocks the necessary teamwork to resolve things. Step 2 attempts to identify and label both sides of the conflict in a way that everyone can accept. The result of Problem Labeling is a simple agreed-upon statement of the common denominators of the problem. You need to identify the central issue that needs resolution. This should give you a unifying statement of the main problem.
Problem-Cause Analysis produces the true problem definition. So why have we taken valuable time with Steps 1 and 2? Because it is extremely difficult to sort through the mental and emotional issues that cloud a problem. Previous steps helped create general awareness of what the problem is and isn’t. These steps helped sort out the causes, contributing forces or stimuli that raised the problem in the first place from the effects, the symptoms, and by-products of the causes. Step 3 looks for the root cause of the problem. The root cause is a controllable, solvable force which explains why the problem exists.
Step 4 is called “Optional Solutions” because the goal is to complete a list of conceivable alternatives. You’re looking for any strategies, which will address the root cause and resolve the problem once and for all. Insisting on a comprehensive list prevents you from rushing off impulsively with the first idea that sound good. There’s a chance that if you follow the first off-the-cuff proposal, it will be inferior, inadequate, or unbalanced. You’ve come this far by avoiding short cuts. Don’t give in to the temptation now. A complete list of alternatives is essential before proceeding to Step 5.
Step 5 allows you to choose one alternative solution as a course of action. You make a value judgment on what to do about the problem. The result you want is a firm joint decision on the chosen optional solution. This means selecting one strategy from the list in Step 4 that everyone will respect. The philosophy of Step 5 is analysis and evaluation. This means lining your ducks up, weeding out the worst choices, and weighing remaining choices against each other. You will consider ranking, prioritizing, and scoring the alternatives to make your choice. The goal is to find the “right” solution using a practical, scientific process.
The best solution ever conceived and agreed-upon won’t solve a problem if it isn’t put into action. An action plan outlines who will do what, where and by when. An action plan organizes tasks which implement the decision in actual practice. Timing, personnel and other resources must be considered and choreographed into action.
Setting performance standards plus a follow up monitoring mechanism, is vital to ensure that the plan is carried through.
Always consider Murphy’s Law; “That which can go wrong, will.” No matter how well you predict the future, think through the sequence of implementation, or estimate time and resources, your plan will rarely go as conceived. It is better to anticipate problems and prepare as best you can. The best action plans include contingency thinking to avoid Murphy’s worst effects.
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