Last Friday, I drove to Cleveland to make a presentation for a client on problem-solving tools. I began by sharing stories about products of my past successful problem-solving experiences such as a 75 percent reduction in customer wait times or a new process for stocking supplies that saved several hundred thousand dollars in expired inventory per year. One client, as a result of examining an HVAC unit replacement problem using the appropriate tools, chose to hire a helicopter to replace the unit rather than cutting a hole in the roof and dropping it into the plant. When they gathered data about the costs of two approaches, the helicopter saved them money. This outcome would not have been chosen without a systematic look at their options.
Problem solving sessions, when they involve both leaders and employees who are experienced and involved with the issues at hand, can save an organization much more than the investment those sessions consume.
I divide problem-solving into the four steps of defining the problem, analyzing the problem, generating solutions, and selecting and implementing the solutions. Effective problem solving usually involves the use of sequential tools. To analyze the problem, brainstorming processes of open, structured or the affinity are helpful. Open brainstorming is the most creative and identifies the most elements of the problem. Structured brainstorming is a more deliberate and thoughtful process, which equalizes the input of participants. The affinity process helps us organize vague problem statements.
To analyze the problem, a process map helps us see troublesome or inconsistent areas. A cause-and-effect diagram allows us to categorize contributions to the problem by policies, procedures, people, or physical plant. The force field analysis looks at the problem as a system and defines positive driving forces and negative restraining forces.
The brainstorming techniques can be used to generate new solutions and the decision matrix will help to select among the options. Finally, a stakeholder commitment chart identifies the level of support that is needed and available to implement the solution. Action planning defines the steps needed to implement the solution, who is responsible for each step, and the timeframe expected for each step to be completed.
A professional analysis of key organizational issues using these tools or other problem-solving tools can be critical to the success of the organization in meeting its customers' needs. Leaders need to become competent in the use of a series of problem-solving tools and teach their employees to be able to use the tools.
Too often we jump to a solution without a thorough examination of the contributors to the problem or of the creative possibilities for solutions.
Leaders who involve employees of all levels of the organization in this problem-solving process create greater understanding of the problem and a greater commitment to implementing the solution across the organization.
R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray's new book, "Tons of Stone above my head: Coal Mining Stories with Leadership Lessons," visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.