Problem Solving Skills


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Problem Solving Skills

  1. 1. PROBLEM SOLVING Table of contents page Introduction 1 Objectives 2 1. Problem solving, an explanation 3 1.1 Phase 1 – understanding 3 1.2 Phase 2 – design 5 1.3 Phase 3 – decision 6 1.4 Phase 4 – implementation 7 2. Checklist 9
  2. 2. INTRODUCTION In the series of readers concerning general job-skills, the subject "problem-solving" must of course be included. This reader deals with this subject and should encourage a methodical approach to problem solving. The reader provides a model for problem solving in four steps. The steps are: Under- standing, Design, Decision and Implementation. Using the first characters of the fours steps as acronym, we can speak of the UDDI-model. The four steps will be elucidated and split in sub-steps, in order to deal with the whole sequence of steps in problem solving as meticulous as possible. A checklist and a model-transparency are added for practical use. Drs. M.G. Altena Drs. W.G. Bekkering Ir. J.J. van Veldhuizen Translation: K.M.L. Slot-Lim Revised version: Brian Thompson 2009 2
  3. 3. OBJECTIVES General: The person is able to complete the route of problem solving, independently, effectively and efficiently, using the given UDDI-model. Objectives concerning knowledge * the person knows the UDDI-model * which steps he has to take in order to follow the route of problem solving properly. * the current procedures concerning decision-making. Objectives concerning skills The person * sees a problem, by comparing the actual situation with the desired situation. * collects data, related to the problem, in order to form a complete image of the problem. * classifies and interprets the collected data, and formulates a clear problem definition. * formulates the results of his problem-solving activities. * formulates different solutions for the problem, in a creative manner. * selects the best solutions for the problem from a range of possibilities. * tests suggested solutions against initially formulated criteria. * applies the procedure for decision making correctly and contribute to a respon- sible selection of the best alternative. * contributes to the implementation of a selected solution, by participating in the planning of distribution of tasks, time planning and criteria. * evaluates regularly, in a constructive manner. 3
  4. 4. 1. PROBLEM SOLVING: an explanation On the job, situations may continuously confront a person with all sorts of questions and problems which require solutions. In order to come to a solution, one passes through a number of steps, sometimes almost automatically, sometimes according to a plan. Anyhow, in professional situations it is important to work systematically and carefully in a process of problem solving. A model can be a great help, because in a model an orientation for methodical action is offered. In this reader a model, supporting a good approach to problem solving, is worked out. Comparable models are found in literature under different names: step-plan, decision making process, methodical approach, problem-solving model. The model discussed here knows a number of bigger steps and a number of intermediate steps. The bigger steps are: - Understanding - Design - Decision - Implementation These steps will be explained. The intermediate steps used in problem solving will also be elaborated. 1.1 Phase 1 - UNDERSTANDING The steps which we will pass through in this phase, in fact only have one aim: find the answer on questions like: - Is there a real problem ? - If so, what exactly is the problem ? As long as there is no clarity on these questions, the risk exists that one starts working on something that is not the real problem or that is not attainable. So first work has to be done on image forming, via a number of intermediate steps: a. To observe the problem b. Collection of back-ground information and data. c. The formulation of the exact problem and aim of possible solutions. a. To observe the problem Image forming starts always with observing the problem. First one must (want) to see what is going on. Often there is a tendency to negate problems or developments, to do as if there is no problem at all. That is not constructive: it solves nothing and does not contribute to improving a given situation. One must become aware that a tension may exist or threaten, between the desired situation and the current situation. Observing this is not a matter of course. The truth 4
  5. 5. is often painful and leading to confrontation. At the moment that it becomes clear, that there is a problem or a question, time is ripe for the second step: b. Collection of data / research. It is time to collect background and data. This starts with brainstorming about the question what may have played a role around the problem. In itself a brainstorm is not categorized, but the following questions may be useful in putting order: - what is the problem? - how did something happen? - what could have been the causes? - when? - who? - where? - why? - etc... While collecting data, one must take into account what can happen on micro, meso en macro level. A concrete example as illustration for these terms: when collecting data in order to form an idea of the problems of the Dutch cattle breeder at the moment, one should not only look at farm-level (micro-level), but also pay attention to for example the Dutch policy measures concerning the farms (meso-level) and the influences of the European Union (macro-level). In addition one should be alert not only to look in the present, but also look for influences from the past (history), which may play an important role. In this stage one will still overlook some aspects, but a global idea of the reach of the problem will have been formed. On this basis a research plan is made, in order to further develop and analyze the plan. The final aim of the research must be, that the problem becomes as clear as possible. Attention must also be paid to possible developments in the future. Research methods which are available are: - observation - interview - literature study - study of sources - inquiry These methods will be elaborated in the reader Research Methods. The data collected after initial image forming research may lead to formulation of new attention points, which in turn need additional research. Fore mentioned steps then are followed again, e.g. in order to obtain more background information regarding the problem. Finally the collected, relevant data are ordered. Certain data can as far as insight is concerned and conveniently be best presented in drawings, maps, diagrams or tables. The now available data offers a sufficient basis to make the following intermediate step. 5
  6. 6. c. The problem- and aim formulation Now the current situation, which has become clear after the research done, can be compared with the aims, or to put it differently, with the desired situation. The direction to search for a solution to a problem and the size of the problem can be definitely formulated and also the main cause of the problem can be ascertained. The next step is to formulate as well in positive as in negative sense, in which direction one is looking with the solution. The final result, which one wishes to reach, is described in a clear and attainable aim. This aim becomes the guide-line in problem solving. Having passed these steps, the phase of image forming has been completed and the result is the formulated aim, for follow-up activities on the route of problem solving, has been accomplished. Summarizing: the essential activities in this phase are: - Determine if there is really a problem or question. - Research for what else has to do with the problem. - Make a plan to define and map the problem clearly. - Formulate the problem in all clarity. - The aim of the problem solving activities is concretely formulated. 1.2 Phase 2 - DESIGN In this phase solutions have to be developed. Was the first phase characterized by a systematic approach, now creativity is of great importance. A range of alternative solutions for the problem has to be formulated. For this purpose some bravery is required, and above all an open, safe atmosphere where creativity can flourish. In this design phase two steps are taken: a. Development of alternatives b. Testing of the alternatives a. Development of alternatives In this "brainstorm" phase, in a short period, as many ideas for solutions have to be developed to solve the set problem. Ideas, it is expressly stated, should not yet be worked out, neither should in this phase already a choice be made between the solutions proposed. In a brainstorming phase one must not be stopped by questions of attainability. "Wild" ideas are welcome, they can bring a creative solution closer. It is of importance to look at a problem from as many different angles as possible and think about possible solutions. It is not to be excluded that solutions may be found in adjusting the stated aims. Example: a dairy farm appears not to be able to reach the desired production, given the inputs available. A possible solution for this problem could be to milk the cattle three times per day. Because this solution is socially not acceptable (work pressure), a milking machine can be bought; hence an investment ! This is one possibility to bridge the gap between actual and desired situation. 6
  7. 7. b. Testing of the alternatives. With this step various ideas and solutions are tested for their costs, gains and practicality. The various ideas have to be tested and appraised. This is a drop-out race. Some ideas are dropped very quickly, a few remain in this selection process. The two or three ideas left over are then really tested. Through tests, experiments, further research and calculation, and consideration of ethics, a painstakingly careful image is formulated of the merits and demerits of the remaining alternatives. All this of course in relation to the set aims. This research must of course be presented in such a way, that it is clear for all those, who were involved in the selection of the alternative. This of course sets high standards for good reporting. Summarizing: the essential activities in the phase are: - Looking in a creative way for solutions - Looking for the scope available for the formulation of solutions. - Defining which testing criteria, must be applied. - Testing remaining solutions for all their effects. - Testing the possible solutions on the basis of the criteria. - Deciding how the selected solutions or advice will be presented. - Formulation of the presentation and its implementation. 1.3 Phase 3 - DECISION Finally a choice will have to be made. A choice is made on the basis of a number of criteria and limiting conditions. In this phase it will become clear that each choice has as well favorable as negative as sides. This may mean that compromises will have to be made. Whatever choice is made, those responsible will have to bear the conse- quences. In order to reach a reliable choice, all those involved must be well informed. To realize this, it must be clear who all the persons are, involved with the problem, under discussion. Also it must be clear, who the persons are, who will be involved in the future - in whatever way - with the proposed solutions. They will also have to be informed, don't they ? In the decision phase, again two steps are made: a. Determination of the procedures b. Decision-making. a. Determination of the procedures. For decision-making it is of importance to know who, about what and in which way may and must decide. A procedure must be agreed upon concerning the following: - who receives what kind of information? - how is the information distributed? - who has the right to change the proposals or alternatives made? - what is the delay of the final choice? - how is decision making formalized? - who has a vote when the final choice is made? - how is the final selection made? (vote, looking for consensus) 7
  8. 8. The selection of the procedure depends always on the characteristics of the problem, the (business-) organization where the problem is located, the limiting conditions and of course the formulated aim with regard to problem solving. It is of great importance to know, at what level responsibilities are situated with regard to the execution of the selected solution for a problem, and who is responsible for the execution. The above described procedures, which in this phase of problem solving are applied, must in any case be agreed upon, before one may proceed to decision-making itself. b. Taking the decision This step is of course not standing alone from the last phase, the implementation. Because those - involved in decision-making - do not want to know only about what they are deciding, but also what is done with their decision and when it will be implemented. There must also be clarity about the method decided for a first evaluation and when this will take place. Summarizing: the essential activities in this phase are: - Decision about procedures. - Selection between presented alternatives. - Creation of an atmosphere of acceptation. - Agreements about implementation and evaluation. 1.4 Phase 4 - IMPLEMENTATION Many concocted solutions for set problems are never realized, because insufficient attention has been paid to the way in which the selected solution must be implemented. As an example, little attention is often paid to friction from the work- floor encountered, when the direction of a business wants to introduce a change in order to solve a problem. Therefore with problem solving not only attention must be paid to the solution to a problem but also to the question "How do we introduce the solution, which we decided upon, in a correct way?": or in technical terms: how do we handle the implementation of the plans? In fact thought is already given to project management for the future. See reader Project management. In the phase of implementation the following activities are carried out: a. The implementation b. The evaluation a. The implementation In the first place people must be available and willing to organize the implementation. Everyone must know well, what is going to happen, who are involved in the implementation of the selected strategy and how much time is available to carry out the steps. Also, in this early stage, an evaluation planning must be prepared. As well for the short term as for the long term a strategy for the implementation of the selected solution must be prepared. If procedures and the strategy are not clear, 8
  9. 9. there is a great chance that the implementation of the selected solution of a problem will not be effective. In the second place attention must be paid, at implementation, to friction against the selected solution of a problem. Such possible frictions have to be taken into account. It is only natural that changes make people afraid and uncertain, is it not? This manifests itself in frictions, tensions and irritation. That is not uncommon but nevertheless it is difficult to surmount such problems. Uncertainty can be reduced by good information and communication. b. The evaluation Timely attention to evaluation was already mentioned as an important attention point. It is of course of great importance to evaluate in time in the process, whether the chosen solution is accepted, and if not to what extent a strategy or even a whole plan must be reviewed. Attention must be given to unexpected effects, to limiting conditions, to the actual situation: is the desired situation as described in phase 1 still up to date and is therefore the selected solution still the most obvious solution? This type of evaluations have to take place at regular intervals, during the implementation process. The intermediate evaluations concern as well the process as the "product". Depending on the answers on fore-mentioned and similar questions, which may be the consequence of an intermediate evaluation, it is not to be excluded that the whole path of problem solving has to be restarted. At a certain moment also an end-evaluation has to take place. If then it may be concluded that the implementation has been passed with success and the desired effect has been reached, it is time for a celebration ... Summarizing: the essential activities in the phase are: - Organization of the implementation with the help of a plan of implementation. - Prepare for eventual frictions. - Carry out intermediate evaluations and take their results into account. - Final evaluation. 9
  10. 10. 2. CHECKLIST PROBLEM SOLVING CHECKLIST Problem solving Yes More or No less IMAGE It has become clear - that there is a real problem or question - what else has to do with the problem The following is available: - a plan to determine the problem and describe it - a proper description of the problem - a proper formulation of the aim for problem solving DESIGN The person(s) has / have - creatively looked for solutions - established a scope for the formulation of the solutions - formulated criteria for testing/selecting feasible solutions - tested remaining solutions for their effects - screened solutions against the criteria - decided how selected solutions will be presented - well prepared, formatted and implemented the presentation of the solution DECISION The person(s) has / have - defined and established procedures - made a selection among presented alternatives - created an atmosphere of acceptation - agreed upon implementation and evaluation IMPLEMENTATION The person(s) has / have - organized the implementation according to the plan - paid sufficient attention to friction in the team - carried out intermediate evaluations and paid attention to their outcome Total assessment: 10