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Fix It! - 10 Steps to More Effective Problem-Solving

If it's true, as has been said, that the essence of running a business is "getting up every day and solving today's problem," then effective problem-solving goes to the heart of every successful enterprise.
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We've spoken elsewhere on The Blog of the importance of carefully planning any meeting or team work-session to make sure it achieves its intended results. Perhaps nowhere is this more important than when you're problem-solving. If it's true, as has been said, that the essence of running a business is "getting up every day and solving today's problem," then effective problem-solving goes to the heart of every successful enterprise.

Yet, too often in our experience, the process of clearly defining a problem, taking it apart, investigating causes and identifying effective solutions is a "make-it-up-as-you-go" exercise. And, the process of planning the implementation of those solutions and making sure they actually happen is often sketchier still.

There's no reason why such an important business activity can't be more rigorous and effective every time you confront a problem you need to solve in your business. And the following ten-step process can help you make it that way:

Step One: Ensure Clarity and Understanding of the Problem
As the old saying goes, "a problem well-defined is 75 percent solved." At the outset, then, don't make the mistake of "assuming" everyone understands the problem the same way. Instead, before doing anything else, work out, together, an agreed-upon, written definition of the problem. For instance: "We need to reduce our overall corporate spend by at least 20 percent." Or "We are taking too long to replace a customer's lost/stolen debit card; we need to do it in half the time it takes us now."

Step Two: Take the Problem Apart
Complex problems are always multi-faceted, comprising many parts, elements or causes. Spend careful time identifying those and listing them. For instance, for the "corporate spend" problem different aspects might be the money spent on new computer systems, expensive sales meetings, telephone charges, consulting projects, entertaining customers, etc. In the debit card issue, there are all the different steps or phases in the card-replacement process; who does them and how; forms to be filled out at each step; the role of the outside vendor who produces the actual plastic cards, etc.

Step Three: Categorize Problem Elements
Here you want to cluster all the elements of the problem you've identified into categories so that you can better see the problem's different dimensions. Sometimes generic categories will do, such as "People," "Policies," "Procedures" and "Systems. Other times, as with the "spend" problem above, the elements might cluster under categories such as "professional services," or "travel and entertainment," "capital expenditures," etc.

Step Four: Identify the Top Priority Categories
Following the old "80/20" rule that says that eighty percent of a problem is the result of 20 percent of the factors involved, allow team members to "vote" for the category or categories that they believe contribute most to the overall problem. Staying with the "spend" example, for instance, this might reveal that expenditures for "professional services" or "travel and entertainment" represent the greatest opportunity to reduce overall costs.

Step Five: Analyze the Problem
Now that you've identified the categories or dimensions that you think contribute most to the problem, it's time to look deeper within these areas. You want to understand possible causes that will then suggest effective solutions. So, for instance, in the case of the debit card problem, we find that "inconsistent procedures" contribute to slowing the card-replacement process. Looking deeper reveals that inconsistent "customer-data forms" result in inaccurate information that must be reconciled, then reworked, causing significant process delay.

Step Six: Identify Solutions
If you've done your work well up to this point, your solutions will sometimes be quite obvious. For example, in the debit card case, if inconsistent data forms are causing rework and delay, the obvious solution is to revise all data forms to a consistent standard to eliminate inconsistencies and speed up the process. Selecting the right solutions will not always be this easy, however. Hence, Step Seven.

Step Seven: Priortize for "Payoff"
We often use a 2x2 chart called a "payoff matrix" at this stage. For each possible solution idea, it allows you to compare "ease of implementation" (hi/lo) against "impact on the problem" (hi/lo) as a way of ensuring that you pick solutions most likely to solve the problem with the least amount of effort and resources.

Step Eight: Plan Solution Implementation
At this stage it is absolutely critical to identify the specific, concrete, actionable steps required to implement each one of your chosen solutions. These should be listed in the sequence in which you'll execute them. So, for the debit card problem, for example: "1) Collect all customer data forms, 2) Review for accuracy and consistency, 3) Revise inconsistencies, etc., etc."

Step Nine: Identify Responsible Individuals
To ensure that problems actually get fixed you must create what we call an "accountability structure." The first step is identifying the individuals who will actually implement the fixes. You should identify an "owner" for each complete solution and its associated "action plan." And, in addition, each action step of the "action plan" should be accompanied by the name of the individual who will execute that specific step.

Step Ten: Define an Implementation Time-Table
Each step of your "action plan" should be accompanied by a "delivery date," that is, the date by which that step will be completed by the person responsible. Together these dates comprise your implementation schedule and provide you with a concrete tool by which to effectively manage the execution of the "fix" to that particular problem.

Steps one through seven above will help you to conceptually solve problems more effectively in your work teams. But as any good business person knows, conceptual fixes don't get the job done. For that, you need effective execution in the real world. And since we believe in the old saw "you can expect what you inspect," Steps eight through ten provide you with a framework to ensure that real-world fixes get implemented accountably, effectively and on time.

Taken together, these ten steps provide an approach that has become a "best-practice" for us in working with our clients' work teams. We urge you to try it. We're confident it will work for you, too!

Ray Gagnon is Principal and founder of Gagnon Associates, a management consulting firm located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA, with a long-standing practice in GE Work-Out, Business Process Improvement, and other methodologies requiring effective teaming and problem-solving.