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How To Become An Effective Problem Solver

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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