When we have a problem in life or in business, we often rush to solve it, without considering the possible causes. While the cause of a problem may seem obvious, it is often more complicated or hidden than you might think. Many variables and factors affect business processes and relationships. These factors may not be readily apparent unless you sit down and objectively solve the problem using proven problem solving techniques. For the purpose of this article, we will use a business assumption but remember you can use this process on any problem you have to get a clear picture of the real causes and the possible solutions:
Step 1: Define the Problem
This sounds a little silly, but you have to put words around the problem to get it clear in your head. Especially if you are working on a team or with a group of people, you should all agree on what the problem is. Don’t be vague in your definition – be specific. Don’t say things like “We’re not making enough money”. The more specific you are in defining the problem, the easier it will be to get to the root cause of that problem and find solutions. So, if you aren’t making enough money, think about why that is a problem. Is the money shortage affecting your ability to hire staff or to buy supplies to make your product? WHY is the amount of money you have not sufficient? Let’s say that you want to grow your business and your current profit will not allow you to do that. OK. Your problem statement might be something like “We are unable to grow our business with our current profit”.
Step 2: Analyze the Problem
In order to solve your problem you really need to know who you have to satisfy. Who is your REAL customer? Not your manager, maybe not even the end-user of the product. Maybe your real customer is the retailer who must recognize the value of your product and know it is worth buying. THEY will figure that out by understanding what THEIR customers need and want. Identify your customer and document their requirements. What do they need? Inexpensive products or products with more features? What kinds of features? If your problem is that your sales are not robust enough for your business to grow, you need to understand how to make more money so you need to understand your customer. Are you even serving the right customer or should you be selling to someone else whose needs are met by your current product?
Step 3: Identify Possible Solutions
For this step, don’t narrow your set of answers too quickly. First, you’ll want to brainstorm. Come up with wild, creative ideas and think out of the box. Throw out all assumptions on how you might make more profit so you can grow your business. You can get rid of the bad ideas later. Have fun with this step. The more ideas the better!
Step 4: Select Solutions
Now you want to select the best solution. Start by narrowing your solution set down to the best two or three. Then run through some test questions to be sure each of these solutions will solve your problem. If you end up with more than one good solution, save all of them. If you are presenting solutions to your management for approval, you’ll want to save your best solution for last, but present all of the possible solutions for their consideration.
Talk about why each is good and what the tradeoffs might be and then give them your recommendation. They will be impressed with the homework your team has done and, even if they select one of the solutions that is not your recommended answer, you will know that you’ve considered all the tradeoffs and that the solution is likely to solve your problem. To cull out the bad solutions from the smaller set, ask yourself these questions:
How will this solution solve the problem? Does it solve the entire problem or just part of it? Has this been tried before? If so, and it did not work, why did it not work? If it did work, why was the process abandoned? Are you likely to get resistance from your management, customer or others with this solution? Do you need to phase in this solution if it is radical?
Once you find the solution(s) you want to advance, you’ll need to do the following:
- Identify the Output from the Solution – Is it a new product, a new sales process flow for your sales staff, a new report, a new training manual.
- Identify Your Specifications – features, security, required skills to do the job, standards.
- Identify all the Steps in the Work Process – Wow will get from the input e.g., a sales lead, to the output – the product delivered to the customer. Don’t leave any steps to chance. And remember to include decision points (any step where the process may get stalled or you may lose time because a person or side process must be followed in order to get a decision and move forward)
- Identify Measurements – You have to be able to measure your results in order to know whether you have been successful in solving your problem. Things like “product returns reduced by 40%”, “Third quarter sales orders of at least $500,000” are specific enough to keep you on track toward your goal.
- Determine Process Capability – Can the steps in your process and the flow of that process get you where you need to go by the time you need to be there? Will it achieve the results you need?
- Evaluate Results – The final steps involve monitoring. Once you get approval to implement your problem solution, you will monitor and evaluate the results. The team will review the results, looking again at process capability, measurements and other factors, to decide if they have to change or edit any procedures or if they have to go back to the drawing board.
- Recycle – Back to the drawing board, if appropriate. Start the process again and see where you failed to consider an issue, what details you omitted, and what new information you may now have to consider to solve this problem.