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Getting to the “Root” of the Problem!

One aspect common to almost every job at all levels in organizations is the need to solve problems. Problems can be barriers to achieving results, but they can also be “prob-ortunities” that open new doors for improvement, growth, and learning. While problems are inevitable, using a rigorous problem solving process and consistent set of tools can help track problems to their “root cause” source and develop steps to eliminate them for the future.

Thinking About Problems

Problems occur frequently and are varied in type. Some can be anticipated, while others are entirely unexpected. Certain problems can be prevented, while it seems that others cannot. However, with the right approach and tools we can be effective in solving most problems we encounter.

Problem solving tools are used during critical moments when something has gone wrong or is out of control and the solution is not readily apparent. They are also used in a more proactive way for making ongoing, continuous improvements to processes and performance.

Effective problem solvers employ both “divergent” thinking and “convergent” thinking. Divergent thinking is expansive, helping to explore possibilities in creative ways. Convergent thinking narrows options to the best one(s) to resolve the problem. The best problem solvers are flexible in using both types of thinking at the appropriate times in the problem solving process.

Five-Step Problem Solving Model

A problem solving model provides a systematic process to work through problems in a logical way. There are a variety of models for solving problems, some very simple with only a few steps and others much more complex with numerous steps. One useful model includes the following five steps:

  • Step One: Define
    The first step is to identify the “real” or root cause of the problem. A common mistake is to deal with a symptom rather than the underlying issue. As John Dewey observed, “A problem well put is half solved.” Frequently, once a problem is analyzed the original problem statement is revised for a more accurate and useful definition.
  • Step Two: Generate
    Some problems have “tried and true” solutions. However, in many cases creative (divergent) thinking is needed to identify solutions that address the root cause for a complete and permanent solution. Often, too little time is spent generating solutions and a problem winds up being addressed more than once.
  • Step Three: Select
    This step involves reducing the choices (convergent thinking) to the best or optimum solution. For many problems, there can be more than one right or acceptable solution. In some cases, the best solution is one that is “outside the box” or a novel approach. Similarly, some solutions involve incremental “tweaks” while others require more significant changes. Caution must be exercised in selecting a solution that is effectual rather than merely expedient.
  • Step Four: Implement
    Implementing a solution requires careful planning and attention to details. In most cases, it also requires good change management skills, including assessing risk, anticipating resistance, and addressing barriers. Determining how to change can be as challenging – and require as much work – as determining the best solution to solve a problem. A solid implementation plan takes into consideration people’s reactions to a change they might not agree with or want, along with frequent and clear communication.
  • Step Five: Evaluate
    Problem solving is complete only when progress and results are measured using a combination of qualitative and quantitative indicators. It is important to remember that factors which are easiest to measure may not include those that are most meaningful. It is a mistake to assume that planned outcomes will occur without actually measuring results.

The best problem solvers follow a logical series of steps to analyze and address problems.

Problem Solving Tools

Each step of the problem solving model employs multiple tools, some more familiar and used more commonly than others. A cause and effect (fishbone) diagram is useful in identifying root causes of problems. Brainstorming, in its many forms, is a good example of divergent thinking that helps people generate creative options to solve a problem. A paired comparison analysis is a convergent thinking tool that helps compare “apples and oranges” or choose the best option when there are no clear decision criteria. A force field analysis tool is used to identify factors that support and impede implementation efforts. A gap or trend analysis tool depicts where results are – or are not – being accomplished. These are only a few examples of the many tools employed to solve problems.

The best problem solvers have a variety of tools at their disposal and employ them appropriately and at the proper time in the problem solving process. Where one tool is not effective, they opt for another tool that is a better fit.

The next time you encounter a problem you need to solve, use a process and set of tools to ensure your success!

Dee Oviatt is a Senior Training Associate with ATW Training Solutions. He can be reached at ATW can be reached through it’s website at

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