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Problem Solving Skills
Problem solving guidelines
Complaint Solving Skills
What is the difference between a complaint and a problem?
What are examples of complaints?
What are examples of problems that are not complaints?
What are problems?
What are problem solving skills?
Complaint Solving Skills

What is the difference between a complaint and a problem?
This is relevant to human complaints.
All complaints are problems.
All problems are not complaints.

What are examples of complaints?
All emergencies are complaints.
All harms are complaints.
All rights violations are complaints.

What are examples of problems that are not complaints?
Problem Solving Skills
Problem solving guidelines
Here are further guidelines.
Complaint Solving Skills
Here are further guidelines.
What are problems?

The stages of problem solving

What are problems?

We use the word problem to describe a wide range of situations of different importance, from the irritation of discovering that the car battery is flat, to the life threatening failure of an aircraft engine in mid-air.

Problems can be defined broadly as situations in which we experience uncertainty or difficulty in achieving what we want to achieve, eg Stopping smoking is a problem when you decide you want to stop but cannot. A computer malfunction is a problem if it prevents you completing work on time.

An excessive workload is a problem when it interferes with your ability to work effectively. Poor communication is a problem when it reduces the efficiency of an organisation.

Problems arise when an obstacle prevents us reaching an objective, eg when a breakdown in a company's manufacturing plant (the obstacle) prevents it fulfilling orders (the objective).

Objective = something we have decided we need to achieve.

Obstacle = anything that prevents us achieving an objective.

objective + obstacle = PROBLEM

We encounter a large variety of problems during the course of our work, with objectives and obstacles of different types and importance. Defining these accurately is essential to finding an effective solution.

What are problem solving skills?

Problem solving skills are those skills that allow us to analyze the facts of a situation so that we can use that analysis to come to a conclusion about the situation. The name, itself, is the best description. We are faced with a problem that we must overcome or solve to acheive our goal. The situation can be as simple as deciding what clothes to wear today or as complex as an algebra or calculus math problem. Although problem solving skills well deserve their own category, they require the use of the other cognitive skills, particularly those of attention and executive functioning that are needed to recognize facts, gather them together and organize them.

Two of the main types or methods of problem solving are 1) deductive reasoning and 2) inductive reasoning. With deductive reasoning the conclusion is ensured by the facts. This means that when you have gathered and analyzed the facts of a situation you are certain that the conclusion is the true solution.

With inductive reasoning, analysis of the facts can allow one to predict the conclusion or solution with high probability that the conclusion is correct but without a guarentee the conclusion is correct. The facts might support a particular conclusion but they do not ensure it. Suppose we walked up to Tim’s house and saw that he was wet and also saw that Jack was holding a water hose. We could analyze the facts and conclude that Jack sprayed Tim with the hose. This is inductive reasoning because with just those facts we could not be certain. Tim could have fallen in the pond while Jack was watering the flowers.

In daily life we probably use a combination of deductive and inductive reasoning to come to conclusions and solve problems. If we learn to gather, organize and analyze facts better we could become better and more accurate problem solvers.

We can gather facts just by observing situations. There may or may not be enough facts to just see or hear to solve the problem. If this is the case we may have to engage in more investigative actions to discover more facts. We may have to ask questions. We may have to try to recreate situations to better see how the facts played out. We may have to think up hypothetical conclusions and test them to see if our “educated guess” is consistent with the facts we have gathered. Trial and error learning might fall into this problem solving strategy.

Organizing information better might enable us to see facts we missed when the information was not so organized. This might involve putting information into groups or in a certain order. We may have to group one way and then regroup it another way to make the facts clear to us. We may have to compare one fact or one group of facts with another to see what is true or what goes together or does not go together. Making a decision that some facts cannot go together helps us to come to good conclusion just a much as determining what does go together. For example, there are four children of different heights and without seeing them I must determine which is shortest and which is tallest. Through my investigation of the facts I find that Jim is taller than Bill, Kathy is shorter than Jane and Bill is taller than Jane. Rather than just trying to answer the question of who is tallest or shortest I can help myself by determining who cannot be tallest or shortest. Since Jim is taller than Bill, Jim cannot be shortest. By using the same line of reasoning Jane cannot be shortest since Kathy is shorter than Jane. And since Bill is taller than Jane he cannot be the shortest. Therefore that only leaves Kathy to be the shortest. Then, since Bill is taller than Jane and and Jim is taller than Bill, Jim has to be the tallest. With one line of reasoning I was ruling out possibilities to come to my conclusion and with the second line of reasoning I was focusing in on possibilities to arrive at my conclusion. This example involved organizing and analyzing the information.

It does appear that learning to gather, organize and analyze facts better helps a person to become a better problem solver.

Problems can be divided broadly into two groups:

Those where the current situation is not what was expected (known as closed or maintenance problems)

Those where we want to change our current situation in some way but there is an obstacle preventing us doing so (known as open-ended or achievement problems).

Closed problems occur when something has happened that should not have happened, or something we expected to happen has not happened, ie there is a deviation from the normal or expected state of affairs. For example, it could be the unexpected resignation of a key member of staff, or the failure of the principal speaker to arrive at a conference. The cause (or obstacle) may be known or unknown, but something needs to be done about it.

Open-ended problems occur when we want to achieve a specific objective but there are certain obstacles blocking our progress. They can be subdivided into three groups:

where we are unable to reach our current objective, eg failing to meet a sales target where our current objective could be exceeded, eg improved efficiency where a., new objective could be achieved through problem solving, eg creating a new product or service.

Solving a problem involves finding ways to overcome any obstacles and to achieve our objective.

Although each problem is unique in terms of the information involved, and requires a unique blend of thought processes to find a solution, all successful problem solving follows a basic pattern.

The stages of problem solving

The problem solving process can be divided in different. ways and the stages have been given various labels. This has been done to make it easier to understand but how it is divided and the labels that are used are not important. To be a successful problem solver you need to understand what the stages involve and follow them methodically whenever you encounter a problem.

To be a successful problem solver you must go through these stages:

recognising and defining the problem finding possible solutions choosing the best solution implementing the solution. These stages are examined in detail in later articles, but here is a summary of what is involved at each stage.

1. Recognising and defining the problem

Obviously, before any action can be taken to solve a problem, you need to recognise that a problem exists. A surprising number of problems go unnoticed or are only recognised when the situation becomes serious. Opportuni­ties are also missed. There are specific techniques you can use to help you recognise problems and opportunities.

Once you have recognised a problem you need to give it a label..... a tentative definition. This serves to focus your search for relevant information, from which you can write an accurate description or definition of the problem.

The process of definition differs for closed and open­ended problems. With closed problems you need to define all the circumstances surrounding the deviation from the norm. Sometimes this will provide strong clues as to the cause of the problem.

Defining open-ended problems involves identifying and defining your objectives and any obstacles which could prevent you reaching them. The problem definition provides the basis for finding solutions.

2. Finding possible solutions

Closed problems generally have one or a limited number of possible solutions, while open-ended problems usually can be solved in a large number of ways. The most effective solution to an open-ended problem is found by selecting the best from a wide range of possibilities. Finding solutions involves analysing the problem to ensure that you fully understand it and then constructing courses of action which will achieve your objective.

Analysing the problem involves identifying and collecting the relevant information and representing it in a meaningful way. Analysing closed problems helps you to identify all the possible causes and confirm the real cause, or obstacle, before looking for a solution. With open-ended problems you are looking for information which will help to suggest a range of possible ways to solve the problem. Analysis also helps you to decide what the ideal solution would be, which helps to guide your search for solutions.

Constructing courses of action to solve the problem involves discovering what actions will deal with any obstacles and achieve your objective. Workable solutions are developed by combining and modifying ideas and a range of creative techniques are available to help in this process. The more ideas you have to work with, the better your chances of finding an effective solution.

3. Choosing the best solution

This is the stage at which you evaluate the possible solutions and select that which will be most effective in solving the problem. It's a process of decision making based on a comparison of the potential outcome of alternative solutions. This involves identifying all the features of an ideal solution, including the constraints it has to meet eliminating solutions which do not meet the constraints evaluating the remaining solutions against the outcome required assessing the risks associated with the 'best' solution making the decision to implement this solution A problem is only solved when a solution has been implemented. In some situations, before this can take place, you need to gain acceptance of the solution by other people, or get their authority to implement it. This may involve various strategies of persuasion.

4. Implementing the solution

This involves three separate stages:

planning and preparing to implement the solution taking the appropriate action and monitoring its effects reviewing the ultimate success of the action Implementing your solution is the culmination of all your efforts and requires very careful planning. The plan describes the sequence of actions required to achieve the objective, the timescale and the resources required at each stage. Ways of minimising the risks involved and preventing mistakes have to be devised and built into the plan. Details of what must be done if things go wrong are also included.

Once the plan has been put into effect, the situation has to be monitored to ensure that things are running smoothly. Any problems or potential problems have to be dealt with quickly. When the action is completed it's necessary to measure its success, both to estimate its usefulness for solving future problems of this type and to ensure that the problem has been solved. If not, further action may be required.

These stages provide a very flexible framework which can be adapted to suit all problems. With closed problems, for example, where there is likely to be only one or a few solutions, the emphasis will be on defining and analysing the problem to indicate possible causes. Open-ended problems, on the other hand, require more work at the idea generation stage to develop a large range of possible solutions.

At any stage in solving a problem it may be necessary to go back and adapt work done at an earlier stage. A variety of techniques and strategies are available to help you at each stage and these are described in later articles.

Problem solving is a key skill, and it's one that can make a huge difference to your career. At work, problems are at the center of what many people do every day. You're either solving a problem for a client (internal or external), supporting those who are solving problems, or discovering new problems to solve.

The problems you face can be large or small, simple or complex, and easy or difficult to solve. Regardless of the nature of the problems, a fundamental part of every manager's role is finding ways to solve them. So, being a confident problem solver is really important to your success.

Much of that confidence comes from having a good process to use when approaching a problem. With one, you can solve problems quickly and effectively. Without one, your solutions may be ineffective, or you'll get stuck and do nothing, with sometimes painful consequences.

There are four basic steps in problem solving:

Defining the problem.

Generating alternatives.

Evaluating and selecting alternatives.

Implementing solutions.

Steps 2 to 4 of this process are covered in depth in other areas of Mind Tools. For these, see our sections on Creativity for step 2 (generating alternatives); Decision Making for step 3 (evaluating and selecting alternatives); and Project Management for step 4 (implementing solutions).

The articles in this "Problem Solving" section of Mind Tools therefore focus on helping you make a success of the first of these steps – defining the problem. A very significant part of this involves making sense of the complex situation in which the problem occurs, so that you can pinpoint exactly what the problem is. Many of the tools in this section help you do just that. We look at these, and then review some useful, well-established problem-solving frameworks.

Defining the Problem

The key to a good problem definition is ensuring that you deal with the real problem – not its symptoms. For example, if performance in your department is substandard, you might think the problem is with the individuals submitting work. However, if you look a bit deeper, the real problem might be a lack of training, or an unreasonable workload.

Tools like 5 Whys, Appreciation and Root Cause Analysis help you ask the right questions, and work through the layers of a problem to uncover what's really going on.

At this stage, it's also important to ensure that you look at the issue from a variety of perspectives. If you commit yourself too early, you can end up with a problem statement that's really a solution instead. For example, consider this problem statement: "We have to find a way of disciplining of people who do substandard work." This doesn't allow you the opportunity of discovering the real reasons for under-performance. The CATWOE checklist provides a powerful reminder to look at many elements that may contribute to the problem, and to expand your thinking around it.

Understanding Complexity

When your problem is simple, the solution is usually obvious, and you don't need to follow the four steps we outlined earlier. So it follows that when you're taking this more formal approach, your problem is likely to be complex and difficult to understand, because there's a web of interrelated issues.

The good news is that there are numerous tools you can use to make sense of this tangled mess! Many of these help you create a clear visual representation of the situation, so that you can better understand what's going on.

Affinity Diagrams are great for organizing many different pieces of information into common themes, and for discovering relationships between these.

Another popular tool is the Cause-and-Effect Diagram. To generate viable solutions, you must have a solid understanding of what's causing the problem. Using our example of substandard work, Cause-and-Effect diagrams would highlight that a lack of training could contribute to the problem, and they could also highlight possible causes such as work overload and problems with technology.

When your problem occurs within a business process, creating a Flow Chart, Swim Lane Diagram or a Systems Diagram will help you see how various activities and inputs fit together. This will often help you identify a missing element or bottleneck that's causing your problem.

Quite often, what may seem to be a single problem turns out to be a whole series of problems. Going back to our example, substandard work could be caused by insufficient skills, but excessive workloads could also be contributing, as could excessively short lead times and poor motivation. The Drill Down technique will help you split your problem into smaller parts, each of which can then be solved appropriately.

Problem-Solving Processes

The four-step approach to problem solving that we mentioned at the beginning of this article will serve you well in many situations. However, for a more comprehensive process, you can use Simplex, Appreciative Inquiry or Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). These provide detailed steps that you can use to solve a problem effectively.

Simplex involves an eight-stage process: problem finding, fact finding, defining the problem, idea finding, selecting and evaluating, planning, selling the idea, and acting. These steps build upon the basic process described earlier, and they create a cycle of problem finding and solving that will continually improve your organization.

Appreciative Inquiry takes a uniquely positive approach by helping you solve problems by examining what's working well in the areas surrounding them.

Soft Systems Methodology is designed to help you understand complex problems so that you can start the process of problem solving. It uses four stages to help you uncover more details about what's creating the problem, and then define actions that will improve the situation.

Using these tools – and others on our Problem Solving menu – will help you improve your approach to solving the problems that your team and your organization face. You'll be more successful at solving problems and, because of this, more successful at what you do. What's more, you'll begin to build a reputation as someone who can handle tough situations, in a wise and positive way.

Problem-Solving Skills

Working through basic problem-solving processes

To approach most problems you will need to:

1. Define the task clearly. What exactly is required?

2. Set priorities. What must be done first? What can be left until later?

3. Develop an appropriate strategy: what steps must you take to address the task?

4. Use experience from similar problems: what do you already know or what have you already done that would offer a starting place or guidance on how to approach the current problem?

5. Set targets: what steps must you accomplish by when? How will you know you have achieved each target? How will you measure your progress?

6. Develop an action plan. List all the steps necessary to achieve each target. Identify the best order for accomplishing each step and a deadline for each.

7. Get started. Do not wait until the last minute, start early on the tasks that you can begin straight away. Keep yourself focused and motivated.

8. Monitor your performance against targets and indicators. Check regularly whether you are meeting your targets and revise your action plan accordingly.

9. Evaluate your performance. How well did you achieve your targets? What did you learn that will be of use to you for future problems and tasks?

9. Evaluate your performance. How well did you achieve your targets? What did you learn that will be of use to you for future problems and tasks?

Elaborating the problem to find the best solution

Research shows that people who spend more time at the beginning working out exactly what a task involves have a better chance of success. This is referred to as 'elaborating the problem'. The most important process in problem-solving is in 'defining the task'.

It is worth spending time reflecting on what kind of problem it is, how it is like other problems you have encountered, and what different options there might be for approaching the task. A less successful approach is to launch in too quickly, without undertaking the initial reflection and preparation.

Once you have done that, weigh up different solutions. Consider lots of options for how to approach the task or solve the problem. Don't dive in without a good plan. It will take time to weigh up the advantages and challenges of each possible solution. Work towards the best solution by:

1. Knowing what would make a 'best possible solution' How far is this feasible in your circumstances?

2. Working to the deadline. Avoid solutions that cannot be met by the deadline.

3. Discussing your ideas with others. Find out how other people have approached similar problems.

4. Researching your options. Look for hidden advantages and flaws. What has been tried and failed before?

5. Evaluating and costing options. Can you afford them? Do you have the right resources for each?

6. Checking your expertise. Do you have the right expertise and skills? Could you develop these in time?

7. Giving your mind time to 'play' with and mull over different options.

- Evaluating the process


•How well did it work?
•What would have led to a better outcome?
•What else needs to be done?
•How far you met deadlines and budgets (where relevant). •How far did the solution meet the task requirements or the needs of the client?
•What feedback have you received from others? What does this tell you about your performance?
Writing up the problem

Your tutor (or client groups if you are at work) will want to know how you arrived at the solution you adopted. Present clearly:

•How you defined the problem.

•The parameters of the problem (i.e. the time available, the cost, available resources, expertise, the nature of the brief).
•The solutions that you considered with their advantages, disadvantages and interesting features.
•How you arrived at the decision you took.
•Your method for applying the solution and what you did. •The results.
•An evaluation.