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A 10-Step Approach to Problem Solving

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When an aircraft mishap occurs, specially trained investigators are sent to the scene to examine the evidence and determine a cause. Investigators examine physical evidence, witness statements, and hopefully participant’s testimony in an attempt to piece together a sequence of events that result in finding a cause. It’s an exercise in problem solving and a good system for leaders to use when solving problems with their teams.

One of the basic rules of a mishap investigation is that each investigator must approach the situation as though he or she knows nothing about what happened. Sometimes that can be difficult because of some preconceived idea or information that has already released to the public.

I was a member of a team investigating of an aircraft mishap that occurred during an airshow. The entire incident had been recorded by local television stations and an untold number of personal cell phones. It had been televised around the world on every major news channel. What had happened was quite obvious. The question we had to answer was why it had happened. That wasn’t so obvious, although there was plenty of speculation.

From my training in mishap investigation, I’ve developed a 10 step process for solving problems.

  1. Define the issue. What is the real problem you’re trying to solve? It’s easy to focus on what seems like the problem but is really only a symptom.
  2. Define the time frame. When conducting an Air Force mishap investigation we had an almost inviolate 30-day period. Know when an answer is required so that you can gage how long to spend on the next steps.
  3. Gather information. Remember; approach the problem as though you know nothing about it. Learn the facts of the situation and don’t let your own opinions cloud what you learn.
  4. Develop alternatives. There may be several ways to approach a problem. Consider more than one possibility. Don’t fall in love with any particular solution just yet.
  5. Discuss potential solutions. Before a mishap team writes a report, we would sit down and share what we learned and hash out the potential causal factors. When solving problems, team leaders should do the same thing. Discuss potential solutions with experts and the people who will have to implement those solutions.
  6. Step back. This step relies on what you determined in step 2. If time is available, step back from the issue and look at it as a disinterested third party. This may be difficult, but it will help you see aspects of potential solutions that you might not have considered.
  7. Change your perspective. Consider your potential solution from the point of view of those who will have to implement it or will be affected by it. It’s easy to decide on a course of action that you will not have to implement.
  8. Set the issue aside. Again this is dependent on the time available. By this point you’ve become quite intimate with the problem and a little time away will give you an opportunity to regain your objectivity. Give the issue a cooling-off period.
  9. Implement! Even though they have worked hard to come up with a solution, leaders can be afraid to implement that solution. Something might go wrong. Yes, that’s very possible. Not addressing the problem is usually worse.
  10. Evaluate. It’s tempting to implement a solution, then move on to the next burning issue. Mark a time in the future to check on the problem and solution. Did the solution work? Were there unforeseen or unintended results? This is important information and will add to your knowledge base when you face the next challenge.

Problem solving is one of the responsibilities of a team leader. Use these 10 steps to make that job a little easier.

These 10 steps are taken from my book Don’t Worry, You Can Do This.

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