Developing & Using Problem Solving Blueprints for Work Teams

Instructor: Nathan Hurwitz

Dr. Nathan Hurwitz is a tenured Associate Professor in Theatre and has three books in print, two textbooks and a coffee table book.

Creating a problem-solving blueprint for teams prepares you to act as the need arises. This lesson looks at problem-solving skills, tools, obstacles, and blueprints for teams.

Facing a Problem

You put your career on the line for the most significant order in your company's history. Although scheduled for delivery at the end of the week, your production team leader contacts you to say there is no way this order will be ready to ship. How do you tackle this problem?

Nobody likes to confront a problem, and the bigger the problem, the more we want to avoid it. Solving a problem doesn't end with finding a solution because the road to that solution has its twists and turns. The answer is to take one step at a time, but what direction do you take first?

Problem-Solving Skills, Tools, and Obstacles

The natural response to a problem is confusion. But having a blueprint, or a method for addressing problems, allows you to start working toward a solution quickly and efficiently.

People have different problem-solving skills. One benefit to solving problems in teams is that team members' skills complement each other, giving a team a wide range of tools. Some problem-solving skills are:

  • Using logic and analytic processes in a systematic way.
  • Identifying reasons for, effects, ramifications, and the scope of a problem.
  • Separating components of a problem.
  • Prioritizing steps toward an achievement.
  • Assessing and optimizing solutions.
  • Understanding the impact of possibilities to choose the best solution.

Some useful problem-solving tools include:

  • The repetitive use of ''why.'' Continually ask ''Why?'' until you find the root cause of the problem.
  • Ishikawa diagram (or fishbone diagram). This chart graphically depicts a problem and its possible causes. The name of the problem becomes the head of the fish, and the team identifies as many possible causes for the problem as possible.

Ishikawa Diagram
Ishikawa Diagram

  • Affinity diagram. Developed in the 1960s, the affinity diagram visually depicts the relationships between data groups. You have probably seen this kind of diagram on police procedural television shows when detectives are trying to connect evidence in the case.

Several possible problem-solving obstacles are:

  • Denial that the problem exists or is as bad as it is.
  • Belief that someone else is responsible.
  • Patching the problem with an insufficient solution.
  • Lack of motivation because of lack of investment in the organization.
  • Incorrect assumptions regarding the problem.
  • Lack of ability to think outside of the box.
  • The blame game, which can result in finger pointing,

Sample Problem-Solving Blueprint

The act of problem solving involves four specific stages:

  1. Acknowledge the problem. Recognize a problem depends on how adept you are at anticipating problems. In the example at the beginning of this lesson, this would mean heeding the warning of the production team leader and putting your team problem-solving blueprint into action immediately.
  2. Define the problem. Problems frequently compound, complicating the issue. In the example, you discover that two problems are compounding each other. Your supplier is unable to deliver materials because of a shipping bottleneck, and the production facility has closed because of a labor dispute.
  3. Evaluate the problem. Look for the causes of the problem and analyze how factors interact with each other. Can you clear or bypass the shipping bottleneck? Do you need to find another supplier or source of raw materials, or can you shift production to be based on other materials? Can you help resolve the labor dispute, negotiate with the union for a waiver for production of your product, or do you need to find another facility? Each of these solutions is complicated and provides problems and stumbling blocks of its own when implemented.
  4. Resolve the problem. Develop and implement the solution to the problem. Having opted to find another supplier nearer to your production facility and to negotiate a waiver between the union and the facility, you now need to put those plans into play. This includes dealing with all of the smaller problems that these solutions create in their wake. You also need to contact your customer and give notice of the delay, explaining what is going on and how you are resolving it.

Truly a Team Activity

Problem solving is least effective when it is a solitary activity; it requires input from multiple perspectives. In Marina Worre's blueprint for problem solving, three of her eight steps include seeking advice and input from others: Call on colleagues and friends, speak with your mentor, and seek out people you trust and respect and ask them.

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