Problem-solving processes: Structured ways to find effective solutions
Sequential phase models
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.
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 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
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.
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.