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How to Solve Problems

  • Laura Amico

problem solver how

To bring the best ideas forward, teams must build psychological safety.

Teams today aren’t just asked to execute tasks: They’re called upon to solve problems. You’d think that many brains working together would mean better solutions, but the reality is that too often problem-solving teams fall victim to inefficiency, conflict, and cautious conclusions. The two charts below will help your team think about how to collaborate better and come up with the best solutions for the thorniest challenges.

  • Laura Amico is a former senior editor at Harvard Business Review.

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What Is Problem Solving? Steps, Techniques, and Best Practices Explained

Table of Contents

Problem solving is the art of identifying problems and implementing the best possible solutions. Revisiting your problem-solving skills may be the missing piece to leveraging the performance of your business, achieving Lean success, or unlocking your professional potential. 

Ask any colleague if they’re an effective problem-solver and their likely answer will be, “Of course! I solve problems every day.” 

Problem solving is part of most job descriptions, sure. But not everyone can do it consistently. 

The Problem-Solving Process

Problem solving is the process of defining a problem, identifying its root cause, prioritizing and selecting potential solutions, and implementing the chosen solution.

There’s no one-size-fits-all problem-solving process. Often, it’s a unique methodology that aligns your short- and long-term objectives with the resources at your disposal. Nonetheless, many paradigms center problem solving as a pathway for achieving one’s goals faster and smarter. 

One example is the Six Sigma framework , which emphasizes eliminating errors and refining the customer experience, thereby improving business outcomes. Developed originally by Motorola, the Six Sigma process identifies problems from the perspective of customer satisfaction and improving product delivery. 

Lean management, a similar method, is about streamlining company processes over time so they become “leaner” while producing better outcomes. 

Trendy business management lingo aside, both of these frameworks teach us that investing in your problem solving process for personal and professional arenas will bring better productivity.

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How to Solve Problems: 5 Steps

1. precisely identify problems.

As obvious as it seems, identifying the problem is the first step in the problem-solving process. Pinpointing a problem at the beginning of the process will guide your research, collaboration, and solutions in the right direction. 

At this stage, your task is to identify the scope and substance of the problem. Ask yourself a series of questions: 

  • What’s the problem? 
  • How many subsets of issues are underneath this problem? 
  • What subject areas, departments of work, or functions of business can best define this problem? 

Although some problems are naturally large in scope, precision is key. Write out the problems as statements in planning sheets . Should information or feedback during a later step alter the scope of your problem, revise the statements. 

Framing the problem at this stage will help you stay focused if distractions come up in later stages. Furthermore, how you frame a problem will aid your search for a solution. A strategy of building Lean success, for instance, will emphasize identifying and improving upon inefficient systems. 

2. Collect Information and Plan 

The second step is to collect information and plan the brainstorming process. This is another foundational step to road mapping your problem-solving process. Data, after all, is useful in identifying the scope and substance of your problems. 

Collecting information on the exact details of the problem, however, is done to narrow the brainstorming portion to help you evaluate the outcomes later. Don’t overwhelm yourself with unnecessary information — use the problem statements that you identified in step one as a north star in your research process. 

This stage should also include some planning. Ask yourself:

  • What parties will ultimately decide a solution? 
  • Whose voices and ideas should be heard in the brainstorming process? 
  • What resources are at your disposal for implementing a solution? 

Establish a plan and timeline for steps 3-5. 

3. Brainstorm Solutions

Brainstorming solutions is the bread and butter of the problem-solving process. At this stage, focus on generating creative ideas. As long as the solution directly addresses the problem statements and achieves your goals, don’t immediately rule it out. 

Moreover, solutions are rarely a one-step answer and are more like a roadmap with a set of actions. As you brainstorm ideas, map out these solutions visually and include any relevant factors such as costs involved, action steps, and involved parties. 

With Lean success in mind, stay focused on solutions that minimize waste and improve the flow of business ecosystems. 

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Boost Your Salary By Learning New QM Skills

4. Decide and Implement

The most critical stage is selecting a solution. Easier said than done. Consider the criteria that has arisen in previous steps as you decide on a solution that meets your needs. 

Once you select a course of action, implement it. 

Practicing due diligence in earlier stages of the process will ensure that your chosen course of action has been evaluated from all angles. Often, efficient implementation requires us to act correctly and successfully the first time, rather than being hurried and sloppy. Further compilations will create more problems, bringing you back to step 1. 

5. Evaluate

Exercise humility and evaluate your solution honestly. Did you achieve the results you hoped for? What would you do differently next time? 

As some experts note, formulating feedback channels into your evaluation helps solidify future success. A framework like Lean success, for example, will use certain key performance indicators (KPIs) like quality, delivery success, reducing errors, and more. Establish metrics aligned with company goals to assess your solutions.

Master skills like measurement system analysis, lean principles, hypothesis testing, process analysis and DFSS tools with our Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Training Course . Sign-up today!

Train to Solve Problems With Lean Today

Become a quality expert with Simplilearn’s Lean Six Sigma Green Belt . This Lean Six Sigma certification program will help you gain key skills to excel in digital transformation projects while improving quality and ultimate business results.

In this course, you will learn about two critical operations management methodologies – Lean practices and Six Sigma to accelerate business improvement.

About the Author


Simplilearn is one of the world’s leading providers of online training for Digital Marketing, Cloud Computing, Project Management, Data Science, IT, Software Development, and many other emerging technologies.

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  • PMP, PMI, PMBOK, CAPM, PgMP, PfMP, ACP, PBA, RMP, SP, and OPM3 are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

How To Become An Effective Problem Solver

problem solver how

By Andrew Vermes , Kepner Tregoe

  • Problem Solving & Decision Making Over time, developing and refining problem solving skills provides the ability to solve increasingly complex problems Learn More

Fire-fighter or problem solver? The distinction is lost when costs are mounting and the pressure to act is intense. Consider the last time you had to deal with the latest emergency. You may have faced a heap of obstacles in your path including people you needed who were uncooperative or unavailable, a lack of quality data and stakeholders who disagreed on the issue at hand and the way forward. Trying to find the root cause of a problem during a crisis is a challenge. But what could you do to become more effective at solving problems in your workplace?

A Kepner-Tregoe colleague and I recently visited a factory that was facing potential disaster. The factory manager said that they risked losing a quarter of a year’s worth of production, worth millions in revenue. The impact on the company’s reputation would be dire as well. So the pressure was on to find the source of the trouble and fix it for good.

To get to the facts of the matter, a problem solver has to ask the right questions. And in a crisis situation, gathering this data needs to be fast. Sometimes the right answers are easily overlooked or seem trivial or there is a real struggle to get any answers at all.

We started by asking a series of questions, which by this stage in the potential disaster seemed like taking ten steps backwards. But it soon became clear that our simple line of questioning wasn’t so simple to answer. Either the answers hadn’t been completely gathered, the questions had never been asked (perhaps out of fear or embarrassment) or answers had been assumed but never verified.

The quality of some product fell short of the required standard, rendering the items unsaleable. What was immediately interesting was that the available data hadn’t been checked. Specifically, when we asked what was different about Line 2 (the one where the defective product was made), the answer was that it was the same as Line 1.

But how do you know which questions to ask to get to the root of the problem? The problem solving experts don’t keep their trade secrets to themselves. In fact, over one million people worldwide have been trained in Kepner-Tregoe’s Problem Solving and Analytic Troubleshooting techniques. The right questions to ask have already been developed and proven time and again. But being effective at using them is what makes the difference.

So what should you focus on to become a more effective problem solver? These guidelines can help:

1. Understand your intention. You’re trying to unravel a mystery – each question you ask should intend to uncover the critical facts.

2. Understand your assumptions. Each question has its limitations and it’s important to understand these in different situations.

3. Focus your questions. Craft the question in a deliberate way that will extract the maximum amount of information possible or confirm the facts. Certain words you use may restrict the information that you receive. Know when you should re-ask the question in a different way.

4. Get specific. Instead of “Tell me about the timing”, improve this to “What was the exact date and time of the first occurrence?”

5. Ask the right person. Find out who is closer to the answers. Eye-witnesses are more likely to know the true scenario.

6. Use logic and transparency. Keep a logical approach to the questioning process and share that visually with others. Take them on the journey of discovery with you.

7. Respect the data. Handle the answers you receive in a professional yet relational way and don’t forget to verify them.

How rigorous do you need to be in finding the answers? Being meticulous in finding the right answers is done by asking the right questions. Putting a fix in place before you’ve made certain of the facts can lead to a problem even bigger than the one you’re trying to solve. At the factory we visited,  production processes had been altered, storage and warehousing procedures adjusted and even delivery methods changed – all with no improvement to the problem situation. It had been a costly exercise in “problem solving” without any resolution.

At the factory, we were persistent and went out on the line to examine it minutely. It didn’t take long to uncover that the claim “the two lines were identical” was false. Our client resisted stopping the line, but once we were able to look inside, we found a crucial part had been replaced incorrectly after routine maintenance, and ever since then the line produced bad product.

What solved the mystery at the factory that day was a focused and methodical approach: a series of innocuous questions, asked with genuine intention and interest, and a dogged determination to actually be supplied with an answer! It is not enough to simply ask the right questions, you have to be prepared to extricate all the facts—even when people think that what you’re asking is unimportant. When answers aren’t readily available, you need to be creative in thinking how to get answers and persist in obtaining them. It could be the difference between losing a quarter of a year’s worth of production, or finding the source of a problem and fixing it for good.

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The Problem-Solving Process

Looking at the basic problem-solving process to help keep you on the right track.

By the Mind Tools Content Team

Problem-solving is an important part of planning and decision-making. The process has much in common with the decision-making process, and in the case of complex decisions, can form part of the process itself.

We face and solve problems every day, in a variety of guises and of differing complexity. Some, such as the resolution of a serious complaint, require a significant amount of time, thought and investigation. Others, such as a printer running out of paper, are so quickly resolved they barely register as a problem at all.

problem solver how

Despite the everyday occurrence of problems, many people lack confidence when it comes to solving them, and as a result may chose to stay with the status quo rather than tackle the issue. Broken down into steps, however, the problem-solving process is very simple. While there are many tools and techniques available to help us solve problems, the outline process remains the same.

The main stages of problem-solving are outlined below, though not all are required for every problem that needs to be solved.

problem solver how

1. Define the Problem

Clarify the problem before trying to solve it. A common mistake with problem-solving is to react to what the problem appears to be, rather than what it actually is. Write down a simple statement of the problem, and then underline the key words. Be certain there are no hidden assumptions in the key words you have underlined. One way of doing this is to use a synonym to replace the key words. For example, ‘We need to encourage higher productivity ’ might become ‘We need to promote superior output ’ which has a different meaning.

2. Analyze the Problem

Ask yourself, and others, the following questions.

  • Where is the problem occurring?
  • When is it occurring?
  • Why is it happening?

Be careful not to jump to ‘who is causing the problem?’. When stressed and faced with a problem it is all too easy to assign blame. This, however, can cause negative feeling and does not help to solve the problem. As an example, if an employee is underperforming, the root of the problem might lie in a number of areas, such as lack of training, workplace bullying or management style. To assign immediate blame to the employee would not therefore resolve the underlying issue.

Once the answers to the where, when and why have been determined, the following questions should also be asked:

  • Where can further information be found?
  • Is this information correct, up-to-date and unbiased?
  • What does this information mean in terms of the available options?

3. Generate Potential Solutions

When generating potential solutions it can be a good idea to have a mixture of ‘right brain’ and ‘left brain’ thinkers. In other words, some people who think laterally and some who think logically. This provides a balance in terms of generating the widest possible variety of solutions while also being realistic about what can be achieved. There are many tools and techniques which can help produce solutions, including thinking about the problem from a number of different perspectives, and brainstorming, where a team or individual write as many possibilities as they can think of to encourage lateral thinking and generate a broad range of potential solutions.

4. Select Best Solution

When selecting the best solution, consider:

  • Is this a long-term solution, or a ‘quick fix’?
  • Is the solution achievable in terms of available resources and time?
  • Are there any risks associated with the chosen solution?
  • Could the solution, in itself, lead to other problems?

This stage in particular demonstrates why problem-solving and decision-making are so closely related.

5. Take Action

In order to implement the chosen solution effectively, consider the following:

  • What will the situation look like when the problem is resolved?
  • What needs to be done to implement the solution? Are there systems or processes that need to be adjusted?
  • What will be the success indicators?
  • What are the timescales for the implementation? Does the scale of the problem/implementation require a project plan?
  • Who is responsible?

Once the answers to all the above questions are written down, they can form the basis of an action plan.

6. Monitor and Review

One of the most important factors in successful problem-solving is continual observation and feedback. Use the success indicators in the action plan to monitor progress on a regular basis. Is everything as expected? Is everything on schedule? Keep an eye on priorities and timelines to prevent them from slipping.

If the indicators are not being met, or if timescales are slipping, consider what can be done. Was the plan realistic? If so, are sufficient resources being made available? Are these resources targeting the correct part of the plan? Or does the plan need to be amended? Regular review and discussion of the action plan is important so small adjustments can be made on a regular basis to help keep everything on track.

Once all the indicators have been met and the problem has been resolved, consider what steps can now be taken to prevent this type of problem recurring? It may be that the chosen solution already prevents a recurrence, however if an interim or partial solution has been chosen it is important not to lose momentum.

Problems, by their very nature, will not always fit neatly into a structured problem-solving process. This process, therefore, is designed as a framework which can be adapted to individual needs and nature.

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Problem Solving

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