happy problem solving

A RATIONAL APPROACH TO PROBLEM SOLVING
© Tojo Jose

Ask any Manager to name one skill that he/she is called upon to exercise on a regular basis and more often that not you will hear that it is the Problem Solving Skill of the manager, that is taxed with regular frequency. Come to think of it, problem solving skill is one skill that can be of use in both professional and personal life. It is indeed a trait which can make a difference between a winner and a looser, an effective leader and an ineffective leader and what sets apart a successful individual.

So how does a successful manager solve problems ? Why is it that some individuals make problem solving look so easy and native to them and others flounder ? Is one born with problem solving ability or is it a skill which can be developed ? And if so how ?
Articulated herebelow is a systematic rational approach to problem solving, a road map for any one who wishes to learn how to confront and solve problems, in an effective manner. Broadly the five steps involved are :

Step Road Map
1.Define the Problem
2.Diagnose Potential causes
3.Evaluate alternatives and select the best.
4.Develop an action Plan
5.Implement solution and evaluate progress
6.Define the Problem

1.Defining the problem .The first step towards solving a problem starts,
amazingly and simply enough with defining the problem. Proper identification of the problem is critical since the solutions that follow would have to focus on solving the identified problem. In case the problem is not clearly identified, we would have a situation where either half way through the problem solving process, we will have to retrace to the beginning to identify the correct problem and redefine it or we would end up with a solution which does not address the problem at hand. How does one go about identifying and defining a problem ?
Actually by writing it down ! This is preceded by identifying the problem. It involves articulating and writing down two statements :

The problem statement and The desired state
The problem statement should accurately and clearly describe the current
situation/condition s that needs to be changed. The desired state is where you want to be when the problem is solved. The test of a good problem statement is that it should be simple and measurable. This is because a problem occurs when an actual state of affairs differs from a desired state of affairs.

How does a manager understands that a problem is taking shape. Four situations usually alerts the managers to possible problems :
A deviation from a past experience – Eg. Employee turnover has risen, sales have fallen below last years etc.

A deviations from a set plan – Eg. A project is off schedule, a dept. is exceeding its budget.
Other people often bring problems to the manager eg – Customer complaints – internal & external.

The performance of competition – eg. Development of new processes or products by a competitor. Here again experts have differentiated between problem and opportunity. Simply put problem has been identified as something that endangers the organisation’ s ability to reach its objectives and an opportunity as something that offers the chance for an organisation to exceed objectives. For eg. High employee turnover might look like a problem taken in isolation. However, if the analysis of the details of the employees leaving., reveals that poor performers are leaving, this could be seen as an opportunity and not a problem.

2. Diagnose Potential Causes
This second step involves diagnosing the problem to find out what causes it. Diagnostic question needs to be asked and information gathered on all the probable causes. A structured process can be employed to dig deep to reach the actual problem. This involves Identifying potential causes

Determining the most likely causes and Identifying the root cause.
The trap one has to watch out for is to have a preconceived notion as to what is actually causing the problem, without analyzing and digging deep to find the actual causes. The time tested way to analyze the potential causes , is to brain storm on the issue. List out all the potential causes that emerge and then sift through the potential causes to arrive at the likely causes and then further down to identifying the root causes.

If employee turnover is the problem defined in the first step, in this step we need to probe further to reach the root cause for this problem.
Is pay and perks what is causing employees to leave or is it the lack of growth in the organisaiton ? Is it the chance to be placed abroad that a competitor is promising which makes ones bright stars to leave or is it stock option program being given by other competing companies ? Or stand the problem on its head – is it a case of wrong recruitment criteria which resulted in the company having in its rolls candidates who would not have been recruited in the first place, be it due to attitude, competence or cultural fit. Through this process of iteration and sifting of all probable causes, one would be able to reach the root cause.

3. Evaluate Alternatives and select the best alternative
Once the root cause for the problem has been identified, the next step is to identify the possible alternatives. In the whole process of problem solving, this is the step where one has to be most creative. The ideas and alternatives towards solving the problem is generated in this step. The recommended process to be followed is the same as in the previous step i.e. brain storming. List out all the possible solutions – go for quantity.

From this list sift and identify the best solutions that can solve the problem at hand. Traps one should watch out for is to ensure that we should not let the tried and tested solutions dominated the list. The trick is to think laterally, differently and come up with solutions which are “different” , which in the final analysis might be the best solution possible.
A few questions that need to be asked at this stage is
(1) Is this alternative feasible?
(2) Does the alternative meet the decision objectives?
(3) Does the alternatives have an acceptable chance of succeeding ?
(4) What are the possible consequences for the rest of the organisation?

If one of the alternatives suggested for resolving the high incidence of employee turnover is to introduce psychological profiling and testing of the prospective candidates and also involvement of a third party in the selection process, it should stand scrutiny of the questions articulated above. In fact one of the points to be kept in mind during the various steps in the rational approach to problem solving, is to at each stage ask Why? Where ?, How?, By Whom ? and When ?, which would make the analysis more in depth and cover all the aspects related to the problem.

4. Develop an action plan
Till this step, the process followed has been only on paper. From now on it is a case of implementing what has been identified as the best solution. The following two sub steps will help address this issue :

Divide the solution into sequential task
Develop contingency plans
After dividing the solutions into sequential tasks or breaking down the solutions into various activities, assign responsibility to the team members who would be responsible for completion of tasks assigned to them. Fix schedule, during which the assigned task would be completed by person to whom the task has been assigned. Budget might have to be drawn up and resources allocated, budgets, schedules and progress monitoring are all essential to performing the management function of control, in a problem solving situation.
Tied in with the action plan, should be the contingency plan. The key to develop the contingency plan is to ask questions on what could go wrong
with the implementations of the action plan that has been identified.
What are the threats to the action plan ?
What could go wrong and how ?
What can be done to prevent these potential threats from happening ?
Answers to the above questions would provide with the outline of a contingency plan, which is the fall back, is case any of the unforeseen but anticipated threats actually takes shape.

5. Implement Solution and Evaluate progress

Once the contingency plan is also in place, it is the time for actual implementations of the solution, as identified through the process stated above. The solution implemented should be monitored to see if it is proceeding as envisaged or the contingency plan needs to be implemented. The results at each stage should be evaluated to see if any mid term corrections are required to be put into action.

At the end evaluate to see if the `desired state’ articulated in the first step has been achieved and accomplished , which in effect would complete the successful implementation of the solutions to the problem originally identified.
The Sequential steps of Rational Problem Solving :

Common Problem Solving Pitfalls
Following are some of the common pitfalls faced by managers while solving problems.
1.Jumping to a solution before really analyzing the problem.
This can happen when you are pressed for time and have to meet aggressive deadlines.
2.Failing to involve critical decision makers or employees affected by the problem when identifying potential solutions.
3.Tackling problems that are beyond the control or influence of the individuals or team.
4.Applying preconceived solutions rather than look at Break Through solutions.
5.Failing to plan adequately on the implementations.
6. Having a contingency plan ready for unforeseen eventualities and constant evaluations of progress to see that objectives are being
achieved.
If the above pitfalls are kept in mind, the process would be much smoother with respect to the problem being tackled and achievement of the ” desired state” all the more easy to accomplish.
Happy Problem Solving !!!
(Source : http://www.hrfolks. com)

~ oleh oretankoe pada Maret 8, 2009.

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