3 Ways To Spearhead Problem-Solving

3 Ways To Spearhead Problem-Solving


1. The common sense approach

Six tips to assess problems and find solutions. By Sid Kemp

If you want to solve a problem internally, learn to do three things: Listen to yourself; listen to your team; do what makes sense. 90% of advanced tools like process re-engineering, project management and quality management are just common sense.

1. Don’t pass blame. The economy is bad, suppliers mess up, and customers can be difficult. That is as true for your competitors as it is for you. What makes winners different is what we do about the problems we can solve, and how we inspire our team to take a can-do attitude and do good work.

2. Fix the right problem. Think like a doctor. You wouldn’t be happy if your doctor gave you stomach medicine for a heart condition. In business, though, we often fix the wrong problem. For example, when sales are low, we push the sales people. Most likely, they’re already doing a good job, and the problem is in marketing. Remember: The cause of a problem is almost never where the symptom shows up. Find the cause and fix it; you can’t fix a symptom.

3. Fix the problem, not the symptom. Say you have some defective parts in your products. Getting rid of them isn’t enough. How do you know more defects won’t arrive with the next order? Instead:

  • Check with your supplier: How can they confirm that there will be no future defects?
  • Change your contract: Add a penalty for defective parts.
  • Change the way you choose suppliers: Go for quality, and prevent the problem.

Now that you know how to fix problems, you just need to find the problems that need fixing.

4. The power of complaints. There’s a great technique for finding your problems – and blowing off some stress – from Barbara Sher’s book WishCraft. She calls it the power of negative thinking. Stand in front of a friend and deliver a stand-up comedy routine titled ‘What’s Wrong With My Business?’ Complain about everything. Be specific. Rant, rave and get it out of your system. Have your friend write down every complaint. There’s your list of problems. Now start solving them. Which problem do you solve first? It doesn’t matter. If you have time and energy, fix the one that will be the biggest boost to your bottom line. If you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off, then fix the one that is bugging you the most.

5. Listen to your team. Go to your team, and tell them you want to make a fresh start. Tell them you want them to enjoy their jobs more and get more done. Ask each person on the team for three problems that you can fix to make their lives easier. If you haven’t done this before, it may take a while before they take you seriously, but you’ll get there. And when you do, you’ll find that after you help them, they’ll be ready to help you.

6. Ensure maximum flow. Be the plumber for your business. When you fix all big leaks, things start to flow. When you fix all the small problems, profits shoot through the roof. What flows in a business? Products, services, and solutions flow to your customers and money flows to you. Don’t be in business just to make money. The purpose of a business should be to do what we love, love what we do, make our customers happier and better off, and the world a better place. But money is the measure of a business. Track money – gross revenue, expenses and net revenue – to find what is working, and what is not.

2. Become a Master Problem-solver

Five steps to sharpen your problem-solving skills – and save time and money, too. By Scott Halford

Your ability to make money is directly proportionate to how well you solve problems for your customers. Problem-solving is one of the most highly valued characteristics you can have as an entrepreneur. Hone this skill and you reap the benefits of saving time, making money and finding the next big idea for your business.

Focus on fact, not fiction

There are three myths about problem-solving that should be shot before we talk about how to become good at it.

Myth No. 1: Problem-solving and critical thinking are the same.
Fact: Problem-solving is a sub-set of its larger cousin, critical thinking. Problem-solving deals with the immediate issue, and critical thinking is required for long-term strategic issues.

Myth No. 2: Good problem-solvers intuitively shoot from the hip.
Fact: Intuition is an important part of the process, but research shows that the more systematic problem-solver has a better return with accurate and successful solutions.

Myth No. 3: If you come up with a good solution, you’re a good problem-solver.
Fact: There are five steps to good problem-solving, and you need to follow through on each to be deemed a pro at it.

Follow through

Following these five steps will help you become a master problem solver.

1. Identify. Identifying the correct problem to work on is often where people trip up. It’s not as simple as you might think – breeze over this step at your own peril. Think about a business that has revenue issues. There could be a few hundred reasons for that issue. Asking the right questions and being a smart detective help you zero in on the problem with precision. The good problem-solver asks a lot of questions about what the problem really is, instead of guessing and making snap decisions about it.

2. Ideate. Now that you have a short list of what the problem might be, brainstorm all the possible solutions. The best brainstorming happens when you have the opportunity to bounce ideas off others. Get the right people in the room and think of as many solutions as you can. This is not the time to evaluate. The physiological brain process of generating ideas is not the same as evaluating them, and they cannot be switched on at the same time. They are both critical processes, but don’t turn off the ideation by turning on the evaluation.

3 Evaluate. This is when you evaluate the ideas you came up with during the ideation phase. Evaluate ideas first based on their impact on a goal, and secondly, on the complexity of the idea. Complexity is not about difficulty. Instead, it is determined by only two things: time and money. Can the idea bring about successful results in the time constraints you have, and does it fit any known budget constraints you have? Ask yourself how large an impact the idea has. If you’re trying to cut R50 000 out of a budget and you come up with an idea that saves R1 000, the impact is relatively low. One with R10 000 becomes a higher-impact solution. You are looking for high–impact, low-complexity ideas.

4 Execute. This is another step average problem-solvers often skip. It does no good to come up with a great idea and then bungle execution on it. We’ve all been in those meetings where ideas are brainstormed and funneled into a few doable deeds, only to walk out of the meeting and never know when or how the ideas will be executed. Fruitless. Come up with a plan to get your idea done. You don’t have to be the executor of the full idea, but as a problem-solver, you have some responsibility for implementing the solution.

5. Re-examine. The final step is to check in with the solution’s progress and determine if it is still the right one. There will be times when the problem still exists because the solution wasn’t right. Don’t throw in the towel. Go back to step two and get going on the next solution.

Bringing solutions

Problem-solving is a skill that pays handsomely. Practice the steps so that you become efficient at them. Require it of others you work with. Then execute. Get them in the habit of always bringing at least one solution idea for every problem you identify. No problem.

3. The action team approach

Creating action teams is one of the best ways to attack and solve your most pressing business management problems. By John Mautner

Action teams are a structured way to attack business management problems. If you truly want to change your company, then adopt the action team concept – it’ll give you a base to solve problems and improve systems for many years to come. An action team is created to solve a particular problem, and its focus is to come up with solutions to the problem, then implement the best solution(s) found. A team will normally meet for four to six weeks, concentrating on just a single problem. Meetings should be held once a week and limited to one hour. At the end of each meeting, if needed, assignments are given to team members to complete before the next meeting. This keeps everyone actively involved in solving the problem.

Let’s address who should be on an action team. A team normally consists of four to six people, and each member should have some stake in the assigned problem, but it can be peripheral. For instance, if the problem happens to deal with inventory, you may have people from shipping, manufacturing, inventory management, purchasing and accounting since they each deal with inventory in one way or the other. What you don’t want is a team made up entirely of the responsible department, in this case, inventory management. In addition, team members should come from a variety of levels, not just from management. During team activities, all team members should be considered to be on the same level, rather than on their level in the company outside the team. On an action team, each member is equal – there is no rank on the team.

Assembling a team

When it comes to the roles that your employees will hold on the team, the first one to fill is the team leader. This is the person who must keep the meetings moving forward and on track and make sure that all members are involved. They are not to allow ‘war stories’ to dominate the meeting. The focus should be to look forward to solutions rather than rehashing problems once they’ve been clearly identified. The team leader must also be ready to step in and hold the team members accountable for their performance when required.

When choosing a team leader, select someone who has a history of putting out a higher-than-average effort in their jobs in an effective and productive manner. Another critical role on the team is the scribe. This person is responsible for capturing the information that comes out during the meeting and, in particular, noting the assignments that team members are given during the meeting to accomplish. These written minutes and assignments should be distributed to every person on the team no more than 24 hours after the meeting so that everyone knows their tasks for that week. The scribe can be selected by the leader at the first team meeting.

The Team in Action

To start the problem-solving process with an action team, choose a problem. Be sure to carefully word your ‘problem to be improved’ so there’s a clear understanding of the expected results of your action team. Then send out an email to all selected members of the team, requesting their participation on the team. At the first meeting, you should brief team members on the importance of their assistance on the team, noting that it’s just as important, if not more so, than their normal responsibilities. Hold the meetings during working hours so that your employees understand that you’re willing to pay them to work on this important task.

Goal-orientated achievements

Each action team project should be scheduled as a standard four-week process, although some flexibility may be required which is why as many as six weeks are allowed. (On projects that require more time, the majority of that time will go toward completing the second and third bullets below.) The process should typically follow this outline:

  • Week one involves clearly defining the problem and researching the issues and related data. This may include figuring out cost items and looking at different, possible solutions.
  • Week two is used to review the issues and the data, identifying new or modified procedures, and to identify updates or changes required to reporting systems. You want to track how the changes are affecting the business, so you need to establish some kind of measure to monitor.
  • Week three is used to finalise the new procedures through group interaction. In other words, the team is starting to establish written procedures on new, required actions.
  • Week four culminates with the final draft of all new procedures and an implementation of the plan.

The result should be a new standard operating procedure and training on how to use the new process that’s been created.

John Mautner
Profit-improvement expert John Mautner is also an author.