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The Problem with Problem Solving

The ability to solve problems is a skill needed by all managers and employees. There are no problem-free companies, jobs, projects, or change initiatives. Many people take great pride in their ability to solve problems and even point to problem solving as one of their key job responsibilities or most significant contributions at work. Yet numerous problems seem not really to get solved permanently; they recur as the same or related problems. Some problems just seem to resist satisfactory solutions. So what is the problem with problem solving?

At one level, the problem is that at times people tend to skip steps or take shortcuts. Typical steps in problem solving include: define the problem; generate solutions; select the best solution; implement the solution; evaluate the outcome. When problem solvers take shortcuts or skip steps, problems frequently recur. And, to quote legendary basketball coach John Wooden, “If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

At another level, problem solving is ineffective because many problems are complex; they have layers. The search for the “root cause” of a problem uncovers these layers. For example, an electrical circuit breaker that tripped with increasing frequency was thought originally to be due to an old, worn breaker. But replacing the breaker did not solve the problem. A deeper diagnosis uncovered the underlying problem – an exposed wire causing a short. Similarly, many problems have multiple causes. Low high school graduation rates are not due to a single factor, but include a variety of contributing causes in the school, the community, and the family.

When asked about the most common problems they face with their employees, many managers identify low motivation – “employees who just don’t care” – as the cause of poor performance. While this might be (and occasionally is) true, often there is more to the problem than this simplistic explanation. Researchers have identified six potential causes for failure to perform:

  1. Personal motivation: willingness of the employee to perform
  2. Personal ability: knowledge, skills, and experience that enable performance
  3. Social motivation: “peer pressure” to encourage performance
  4. Social ability: support and assistance from others to enable good performance
  5. Structural motivation: rewards and accountability that encourage performance
  6. Structural ability: workplace environment (tools, facilities, processes, systems, etc.)

Diagnosing a lack of motivation as the single cause of poor performance may lead to an incomplete picture. Misdiagnosing (or underdiagnosing) a problem occurs when people don’t consider all the contributing factors. This leads to incomplete solutions that are not effective. Or, as psychologist Abraham Maslow put it, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

What is the problem with problem solving? Simply put, if a problem recurs it was never solved in the first place. Managers and employees who avoid the tendencies to take shortcuts, skip steps, or oversimplify problems and solutions will become more effective problem solvers and make greater contributions in their organizations. We can all become more effective problem solvers!

Dee Oviatt is Senior Training Consultant at ATW Training Solutions.  Dee can be reached at or by calling 515.727.0731


Problem solving training, available through ATW Training Solutions, lays out a straightforward, effective problem solving process and accompanying tools. The steps in this process are:

  • Define
    Without a clear understanding of the root cause of a problem, any solution may deal only with symptoms and the problem will resurface. To alter slightly a famous quote from Henry David Thoreau, “There are a thousand hacking at the leaves of a problem to one who is striking at the root.”
  • Generate
    Solutions that are familiar and comfortable may overlook creative alternatives that would be more effective. Brainstorming often follows only familiar channels or stops too soon. Thus, the best solutions may never be considered.
  • Select
    A solution may be chosen because it is expedient, acceptable, or “politically wise” rather than what would work best. Also, some solutions fit certain situations or groups but do not apply broadly.
  • Implement
    Solutions that introduce change can generate resistance. Implementation plans must go beyond the “rationale” or logic for changes to also deal with people’s “reactions” or emotional responses.
  • Evaluate
    Measuring the impact of a solution is all too often neglected because people assume the solution will work or because there is no time to look at how well a solution is working before moving on to deal with the next pressing problem.

The focus of the ATW training is not on “people problems” such as bad attitude, poor communication, or personality conflicts. Rather, it is on problems with more of a direct bottom line impact such as productivity, quality, cost, safety, waste, and so on.

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