Differentiating Causes & Symptoms of Problems

Instructor: Sudha Aravindan

Sudha has a Doctor of Education degree in math education and is currently working as a Information Technology Specialist.

Are you a front-line manager? Use this lesson to explore effective ways of solving problems and making decisions, and to differentiate between symptoms and causes of problems.

Problem Solving and Decision Making

As the new manager of an IT firm, one of Joanne's job responsibilities include decision-making skills involving organizational priorities, human resources, budgeting, and public relations. She's also, of course, responsible for the consequences of her decisions.

One day, one of Joanne's team members notifies her that a critical project missed its deadline. This is a problem. Joanne has to figure out why this happened - either the project team was not aware of the deadline, there was not sufficient resources to complete the project on time, or there was some other issue that somehow went unnoticed.

A problem is a question for which a solution or inquiry has to be identified. For example, a drop in sales is a problem. Problems have to be correctly identified and resolved for organizations to function effectively.

Causes and Symptoms of Problems

A problem's symptom is an indication that something did not work out quite as expected. A problem cause, on the other hand, is the reason why the problem occurred in the first place.

Another of Joanne's project managers informs her that their newly developed software failed the quality control test. This is the symptom of a problem. Joanne needs to work with the managers to identify the cause.

Maybe the testing criteria was not well defined, or the software specifications did not match the requirements. Perhaps the required software or hardware tools were not procured, or it could be a management problem that needs to be identified, isolated and resolved.

One method to identify the difference between a problem symptom and a problem cause is to follow the Whys method. Start with a problem, and ask why it happened. For each answer, ask another 'why', five times over until the root cause of the problem is identified.

Problem Solving Steps

Joanne follows four steps in her problem solving:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Identify alternative solutions
  3. Evaluate the alternatives and selecting a feasible one (the decision-making process)
  4. Implement the solution and test it to see if the problem is resolved

1. Defining the problem.

To properly define the problem, Joanne has to diagnose it so that the real problem is identified and not just the symptoms. She proceeds to:

  • Identify facts based on data
  • List all possible underlying causes
  • State the problem explicitly so that its nature is clear
  • List the standards, if any, that were violated

Before putting together a team for the problem solving process, Joanne realizes that she needs to consider the following four situational factors:

Is there enough time to solve the problem without causing the other concurrent projects to back slide? Is there sufficient information and data to effectively resolve it? Are the staff qualified and resourceful enough for solving the problem? Is it critical that the team members and project managers accept the solution before it can be implemented?

2. Alternate solutions for problem solving.

After a discussion with her team, Joanne decides to have a brainstorming session to welcome any number of ideas without criticism. Then they will focus on the ones that will help improve the current process.

3. Evaluating alternative solutions.

Joanne decides to consider both the satisfactory and optimal approaches. The satisfactory approach evaluates alternatives until one that satisfactorily resolves the problem is identified. This process is fast, but it stops at the first optimal alternative, so it's possible that a more optimal one exists.

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