5 Steps to Become a Problem Solving Rockstar in the digital era

The most successful companies look to humans and machines as allies.

1. Define your problem

This is the first, yet one of the hardest steps in the problem solving process. If you are not accurate and clear here, the following analysis will most likely be wasted time. You need to be crystal clear which exact problem you are trying to solve and ensure your stakeholders are on the same page. But how?

  • Current actual condition. Where are you today?
  • Target condition. Where do you want to be; or what is the required standard by your customer?
  • Trend. What does your problem look like over time? Is it consistent over weeks/ months or is it a seasonal effect? Maybe you are facing an outlier? Maybe next month you will be on track?

2. Do your root cause analysis

At this point it’s crucial to open up your mind to learn new things and not jumping to solutions immediately. It’s the time when you go to the “crime scene” and observe the process and witness where it goes wrong. It really helps if you document your observations in a structured way by using, for example these tools:

  • 5WHYs technique. Ask why until you find a root cause — something that you can immediately take action on. Please, take a look at how it works in practice. Sometimes asking WHY can be difficult, especially if your problem is too broad, so try to use the pareto principle (which I’ll explain below).
An Italian economist developed 80/20 rule in the late 1800’s when he noticed that 80% of land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people.
  • Pareto principle basically boils down to you slicing and dicing data to find ~20% of things which cause ~80% of your problem. Again, it’s good to visualize your findings in a graph and you can use these templates. Typically you need to create at least a few Pareto graphs and let your business acumen decide which one provides the most logical conclusion before you e.g. apply 5Why technique.
  • Fishbone diagram is a great tool to use when you are brainstorming on potential causes with involved parties. You start by outlining your problem at the “fish head”, then move into describing the causes on the main bones and provide more details by drawing smaller bones. In the end you will have a picture which serves as a cause — effect diagram. You can find examples and templates here.
  • BOB and WOW technique is good to use when you are slightly lost and still trying to understand your problem. If you want to see an example how Bob and Wow technique can be applied, please read my previous blog post.
While doing your root cause analysis, never blame people! It’s always the process.

3. Develop countermeasures

You probably won’t believe it, but developing countermeasures is actually the easiest step if you have done a good job in the previous stage. Once you have found the root causes, and don’t forget that usually there are at least a couple of them, countermeasures are usually pretty straightforward. If they are not straightforward, then you need to continue your root cause analysis until you know exactly what you need to do.

Usually it’s at least a couple of countermeasures needed to close the gap of your problem. There is rarely one magical solution.

4. Check the effect on your problem

Never celebrate too early and always monitor over time how your implemented countermeasures are affecting the problem. Track progress until you are certain that the results have been sustained.

5. Ensure new ways of working are “cemented”

Making sure improvements stick is one of the biggest challenges faced in business. It often happens that after a couple of months we derail to the old ways of working, thus recreating the former problem. In order to avoid it, I would advise to:

  • Continuously measure at the actual place where the process is executed.
  • Ensure the new ways of working become the standard. Don’t forget to train and coach employees and embed it in the new hire training.
  • Ensure there is leadership buy-in to sustain the improvement.
Don’t rush to celebrate too early and pause. Stabilising new processes ensures the success of improvement.

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Agne Nainyte

Agne Nainyte

Digital Transformation Consultant at Schuberg Philis and blogger at https://nainyte.com/