Problem-solving processes: Structured ways to find effective solutions

Which project manager has not experienced this? In a meeting, a project team member describes a problem that has already been discussed by colleagues. Unfortunately, without success and without tangible results. What can the project manager do to find a solution to the problem together with the project team and possibly other experts? What can the project manager do to improve the team's problem-solving skills? First of all, the project manager must encourage people to address problems openly, promote active discussion of the problem, and then make the team responsible for implementing or applying the solution that has been found.
A viewpoint on a cliff.


Sequential phase models

Sequential phase models provide a structured approach to the problem solving process. They consist of a number of successive phases, each of which deals with one aspect of the problem-solving process. Once one phase is completed, the next phase follows in the specified order. Within the phases, project teams have the freedom to tailor their approach to meet the specific needs of the problem. This approach is particularly suited to group processes as it provides clear steps and a structured way of working.
The phases of a sequential phase model can vary depending on the context. In principle, a phase model could consist of four phases, each of which concludes with a verifiable outcome:
  • Problem identification phase, with the outcome: the problem is named.
  • Problem analysis phase, with the outcome: the current situation is described.
  • Solution development phase, with the outcome: the objective has been defined, the target situation has been described, alternative solutions have been developed, evaluated and prioritised, an action plan for implementing the preferred alternative solution (with deadlines, responsibilities, necessary tools) has been drawn up.
  • Solution implementation phase, with the outcome: actions have been implemented and results evaluated.

Problem-solving cycle

One of the best-known problem-solving cycles is the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle, also known as the Deming cycle after the US physicist W. Edwards Deming. It is a recurring sequence of activities. In contrast to sequential phase models, which are performed linearly and once, the problem-solving cycle works continuously in the four steps of "Plan - Do - Check - Act". This iterative approach allows the team to move progressively closer to the final solution each time.
The cycle begins with planning, where the team identifies the problem, sets goals and develops a solution approach. This is followed by implementation, where the planned actions are carried out to solve the problem. Implementation is followed by review, where the team analyses the results and impact of the actions taken and compares them with the previously set goals. Based on the results of the review, the final step, action, is to decide whether further adjustments or improvements are needed to move the problem-solving process forward and closer to a final solution.
The problem-solving cycle is characterised by its iterative nature, with each iteration building on the results of the previous one. Each step provides an opportunity to gain insight and continuously improve the solution approach. This allows the team to adopt a learning approach and to progressively develop more effective solutions.
As a flexible approach, the problem-solving cycle is particularly suited to complex and evolving problems where a solution cannot be found through a one-off linear process. By repeating the cycle, the team moves closer to the desired solution to the problem and has the opportunity to adapt the process flexibly to new insights and requirements.

Form-based systems

Form-based systems are an appropriate method for dealing with problems where the problem-solving process can be carried out by one person. They provide a structured and formalised approach through the use of various forms that document the entire problem-solving process from situation analysis through problem analysis to decision making. By using these forms, the problem-solving process is clearly structured and allows individuals to identify the next step almost automatically. They ensure that relevant information is collected and documented so that individuals can track the progress and results of their problem-solving work.
Form-based systems can be an effective way of organising the problem-solving process and ensuring that important issues and steps are considered. The formalised approach allows for systematic documentation, which contributes to the traceability and transparency of the problem-solving process. It should be noted that form-based systems are not suitable for all types of problems and projects. Their focus on structure and formality makes them too bureaucratic and cumbersome for smaller projects. However, form-based systems do provide clear guidelines and guidance for problem solving, which can be particularly useful in complex or regulated environments.

Examples of problem-solving methods

Since each problem is unique and requires an individual approach, it is important to have a broad repertoire of methods to respond flexibly to different situations. The two problem solving methods "cause-and-effect diagram" and "minimal solution" are presented in more detail below.
Cause-and-effect diagram

The cause-and-effect diagram, also known as the fishbone diagram or Ishikawa diagram after its inventor, the Japanese chemist Kaoru Ishikawa, is an excellent way of identifying the possible causes of a problem. It helps the project team to break down the problem into different, pre-defined influencing factors.
The process of creating a cause-and-effect diagram involves first describing the effect as accurately as possible. If the aim is to solve the problem, then the problem is the effect, which is described in terms of content, time, place and scope. The possible causes are then recorded in different fields, which can be grouped according to the 5-M method, for example: Machine, Method, Material, Manpower and Measurement. These categories are plotted along arrows, giving the characteristic appearance of a fishbone diagram. The team then assigns the possible causes of the problem to the appropriate categories. Through targeted questioning by the facilitator, previously neglected categories or individual causes can be uncovered. Repeated questioning of individual causes with the question "Why?" can reveal other secondary causes.
The contents of the diagram are generated in teamwork. First, the team collects very general, possible causes of the problem, e.g. by using creativity techniques such as brainstorming or brainwriting using 'Method 635' or the 'morphological box'. Causes are mapped to the 5-Ms and, if necessary, further subdivided into major and minor causes. The causes are then evaluated to identify focus areas that can be further investigated or selected to solve the problem. Teamwork in the creation of the cause-and-effect diagram links different views and perspectives on the problem. The team focuses solely on the problem and its solution, and individual interests of team members fade into the background.
The cause-and-effect diagram provides a visual and structured method for identifying and analysing causes. It provides a holistic view of the problem and promotes team collaboration and communication by including different perspectives. By systematically identifying root causes, targeted actions can be taken to effectively drive problem resolution.
Minimal solution

The minimal solution provides a simple but systematic approach to problem solving, especially for those who do not want to deal with more comprehensive methods or simply do not have the time. The steps of the minimal solution include narrowing the problem, defining the requirements for the solution, searching for possible alternatives, and examining the advantages and disadvantages of the solutions.
If the preferred solution does not work, there is still the possibility of moving to an alternative. In such cases, the project team can use a hierarchy adapted to individual needs. This asks, "What would be the ideal solution?" and, if this is not achievable, "What is the highest level we can achieve under the current conditions? Finally, it asks: "What is the minimum we can achieve with our existing resources and forces?" This hierarchy makes it possible to look at different approaches to a solution and select the one that best meets the requirements and possibilities.
The minimal solution provides a pragmatic approach to tackling problems and finding solutions. It allows you to move forward effectively with limited resources and time, making the best of the situation. Although it is a simplified method, it can lead to quite good results and serve as a starting point for further improvements and optimisations.


The success of a project is greatly enhanced if the process for solving a problem is designed in an efficient and structured way. By adopting a clear approach and incorporating appropriate methods and techniques, the team can adopt a systematic approach and increase the chances of successfully solving the problem. It is important to keep the process flexible and responsive to change, while maintaining clear objectives and effective project management.

Problem-solving process - the author
Author: Dr. Roland Ottmann
Keywords: Project management, Problem solving process

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