Over and over, again!

It has been my experience that tremendous resources, in all kinds of organizations, are expended trying to solve the same problems over and over again. In one case, a manufacturing organization had been struggling with its union for more than 10 years over constant and chronic problems and attendant grievances of overtime scheduling. The parties had "solved" this problem, by their count, 12 times only to see it come up again and again!

After three days of focused, disciplined problem solving, the problem was finally solved and has remained solved for more than three years!

When asked what was different this time, the response was , "we spent the time to do it right!"

We seem to have plenty of time to spend on solving the same problem over and over again!


Step 1. Identify and define the problem. This critical first step is the one where most of us make our biggest mistake. Too often we do not take the time to ensure that we have truly defined the problem and the often problem solve only a symptom of the problem or even the wrong problem. Successful problem solving is doomed from the start!

For example: I live about 10 minutes from my golf course and like to get to the course about 30 minutes prior to my tee time to warm up. One day I go out to my car about 40 minutes prior to my tee time and get into the car to drive to the course. I put the key in the ignition and turn the key. The car won't start. What's my problem? Low battery? Bad starter? What?

My problem is that my planned mode of transportation to the golf course is not going to work in the time frame I have in mind. The fact that my car won't start is a symptom or cause of my problem - getting to the golf course on time!

Tests of a good problem statement:
  • Avoid frame the problem in such a way that a solution if implied
  • Implies the objective or outcome we want to achieve
  • States the situation we wish to change
  • Is objective and specific
  • Distinguishes problems from causes or symptoms.
Experience suggests that problem solvers must "keep at it" until they have a statement that meets these tests.

Step 2. List ALL possible causes of the problem. Too often we begin to list all causes of the problem and get caught up in our own biases and prejudices and completely overlook the real cause. Not being clear on what ALL possible causes of the problem might be, we cannot expect our solution(s) to be effective or lasting


  • Gather relevant data
  • Make sure state a possible cause; not just a fact
  • Complex problems may have more than one true cause
  • When a true cause is corrected, the problem will no longer exist
  • Describe the problem in five areas:
  • What went wrong?
  • Where did it occur?
  • When did it occur? Once? Continually?
  • Who was involved?
  • How serious is the problem? What is its impact?
Upon completion of step 2, go back and review your problem statement. Is it still correct? Does it need changing? If so, repeat step 2.

Step 3. List ALL possible solutions. Avoid becoming trapped in your own initial ideas of a solution should be. Work as hard as possible to generate as many alternative solutions as possible. Maximum creativity and imagination is critical. Do not eliminate ANY ideas at this point, regardless of how impossible they may seem.

  • Generate action solutions
  • Think creatively
  • Focus on what is good with an alternative and build on it
  • Do not jump at the first
  • idea that seems workable
  • Will the alternative lead to concrete, measurable action?
Upon completion of step 3, go back and review your problem statement. Is it still correct? Does it need changing? If so, repeat steps 2 and 3.

Step 4. List guidelines for satisfactory solutions. What are all the qualities the solution(s) must have in order to work, including people, departments/agencies, measures, and activities that must be satisfied with any solution(s) selected. The actions taken in steps 1 - 3 are for naught if the solution(s) cannot possibly be implemented due to costs, impact on the business, politics, etc.

Guidelines are criteria that you want a solution or solutions to meet. For example, the solution(s) must solve the problem; or, must be implementable with current manpower and/or budget; or, must deliver results within ______(period of time).

  • Divide your list of guidelines into three categories
  • "Must" - solution(s) must meet these or it will and should be rejected
  • "Want" - not essential that solution(s) meet these, but it would be nice
  • "Not at all" - should not be a guideline at all.
  • Rate each solution first against each "must" guideline.
  • Rate remaining alternative solutions against the "want" criterion.
  • Check each alternative solution against the problem statement (step 1)
  • and the list of possible causes (step 2). Does it address both?
Step 5. Evaluate alternatives against steps 1, 2 and 4. Evaluate alternatives solutions and determine those that meet the "must" and "want" guidelines.

Step 6. Select the best solution(s). If steps 1 - 5 have been done well, this step is quite simple. The solution (or combination of solutions) will generally meet all the "musts" and the largest portion of the "wants" while addressing the problem statement and the alternative causes developed in step 2.

Most problems will require a combination of solutions rather than a single alternative solution. The problem solver must determine how the alternatives selected can best be combined into an integrated whole.

Step 7. Develop plan for implementation. The key elements of an effective plan include:

  • What needs to be done to implement the solution(s)?
  • Who will do it?
  • When will it be done?
It would also be helpful to create a "who cares" chart prior to actually developing the plan itself. A "who cares" chart is simply a listing of who (people, departments, functions, etc.) will be impacted by the solution(s) and in what way will they be impacted. Some will be actively involved in the implementation process. Others will have to approve resource expenditures. Still others may have their own policies and/or processes affected. Others may simply be interested in knowing what is going on.

Refer to "BACKWARD PLANNING" for suggestions for development of the actual plan.

Step 8. Implement the solution(s)! Execute the plan.

Step 9. Follow up. Provide oversight, guidance and support to assist in the implementation of the action plan. How is the plan progressing? What are the problems with implementation, if any? What assistance and support can you provide?

It's up to you! As stated in the old Framm oil filter commercials, " You can pay me now, or you can pay me later."

If you don't engage in a disciplined problem solving process, you will be spending your time and the time of the organization solving the same problems over and over again. The competitive pressures of a global marketplace simply won't allow solving the same problems over and over again.