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The Puzzle of Problem Solving

Holidays off at home revived my annual household tradition: completing a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. It is an extremely relaxing activity for mind and body as eyes search and hands reach out for oddly shaped pieces and the mind wanders and drifts. As the picture starts to appear, I reflected on how this puzzle also follows the troubleshooting techniques I use in my working life.

Framing the picture

Unpacking the box, eager eyes are not distracted by the shapes of the broken image, only by the color and the prospect of beginning. We seek out the limits and find all the pieces with the straight edges to “scope” the puzzle, creating the frame that sets the boundaries. In problem solving by constructing a problem statement, asking: what is the object and its deviation? Then we search for data and organize it in order to construct a clear picture from the outside in.

Connecting the key pieces

The limits are set, now where to begin? Expert puzzlers build around the distinctive features and obvious, easier-to-fit, puzzle pieces. The right conditions help, such as good illumination and enough room to lay out the pieces so nothing is left hidden.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the quantity of interdependent elements; you don’t know where to look first. Obvious pieces can be overlooked by obsessive searching for a specific piece that fixates for the moment, while other times we unintentionally stumble across a coveted missing piece.

As troubleshooters, we know that some facts are easy to find and are immediately brought to the table, while others demand perseverance and keen observation.

Our troubleshooting can also become fixated if we focus on seeking out evidence to support a possible root cause at the risk of missing key data. It’s important to keep an open mind and systematically build islands of what we know to be true. This will bring the big picture into focus and soon we’ll have more solid evidence rather than spaces in between. With the puzzle and the problem, there is a rush of activity to fill in the key gaps that suggest the final picture.

Observe closely

When the easiest swaths of the puzzle are done, a difficult stage begins: discerning the lookalike parts. The key capability here is to observe very closely. A friend of mine is amazing at this – staring, comparing, and then suddenly selecting one piece and fitting it perfectly in the right spot as if answering, “What is special, odd, unique, or distinct here?” The random, trial and error approach takes much longer and can be a bit distracting to others around the table.

The complex problems I face at work that need systematic troubleshooting are the ones with a lot at stake. Yet too often we come across people using trial and error attempts to solve the problem. Once they actually start to look closely at the facts and take a logical approach, they immediately recognize that trial and error alone is a waste of time.

The question—if this possible cause is the true cause, why is it happening in this range of products and not in others?—is simple but valuable. Taking a step back and asking these types of questions turn the focus to unique characteristics and relevant changes and then to the course of action that allows progress to be made. Unfortunately, too often, effort, money and parts have been expended already, without a clear path to a permanent solution. Like in the puzzle, only one solution is possible.

Problem Solving – is it just a kids play?

Standing back, looking at the completed picture it all seems so right, so obvious.

Is problem solving as easy as finishing a jigsaw puzzle? Of course not! But even so, the frustration levels can be the same—as well as the feeling of contentment at another puzzle resolved.

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