A universal aspect of organizational life is the need to continually solve problems—ones that surface because of business disruptions and within the spirit of continuous improvement. Problems are everywhere. We call the small ones “puzzles;” those that are more convoluted and amorphous are called “conundrums” or “wicked problems;” and then, there are super complex problems that require new theories, algorithms, and technologies to address. Like physical puzzles where all of the pieces needed are in the original box and your job is just to figure out how to fit them together, the information needed to solve puzzles is generally within the bounds of the organization, and the primary challenge is finding the pieces and making the connections. For conundrums, the situations are different and multifaceted, they have more than one solution, and require additional assets or process changes. Looking outside of the organization is critical during a conundrum.
One critical way for organizations to stay competitive is having a system in place for generically solving problems falling under the conundrum or wicked umbrella and for making improvements that are continuous and breakthroughs. Wicked problems and system improvements are rarely accomplished by individuals with eureka moments—they are initiated and solved by groups or teams working across boundaries. Thus, a common theme with successful organizations is an overarching problem-solving methodology, framework, or toolset.
How does your organization solve these business challenges? Does every unit use a different methodology then run into further issues just communicating and explaining their ideas or solutions? Teams that interact and are interdependent need a consistent, disciplined approach to problem solving so they can more easily influence business results.
While having models, frameworks, and toolsets is recommended, there is no single problem-solving method. Through the years a variety of models have been developed and the one you use might be different based on your organization. For some this might be using AGILE, PDSA, Kaizen, or action learning. Others might use project management tools, LEAN, or Hoshin Kanri. Many organizations use various vendor models for specific approaches such as the Kotter change model or the strategy choice cascade framework. Whatever is being used, experience shows that having a consistent process used across the organization promotes goal alignment and integration, which leads to improved results.
One of the most well-known and frequently used frameworks for continuous improvement is from quality management expert, W Edwards Deming, and is called PDSA (Plan.Do.Study.Act). The process was adopted from the Shewhart cycle, developed earlier by Walter Shewhart, a physicist and engineer known for using statistical methods for monitoring and controlling processes. The four-phase cycle includes various questions or steps to guide the thinking process and actions. For most of the tasks, tools and techniques are available. Many of the tools and techniques associated with the PDSA cycle are standard statistical analysis tools such as the bar chart or control chart used for measuring and tracking. Others help facilitate group interactions and promote creativity and innovation. Still others may be from other disciplines. While there are recommended tools, you can also customize with human-centered design or other gamestorming tools.
Plan: Understanding the system and people involved.
- What is the problem to work on and who will work on it? What are the initial conditions? Why is this seen as a problem?
- What is the current situation? How is the challenge currently defined and by whom?
- What data is available and what is information is needed?
- What are the causes of the current situation?
- What are the root causes of variation and how do you know?
- What does excellence look like for the process?
Do: Select and develop a theory for improvement.
- What are the actions to take and what are the predictions?
- Implement the theory for improvement or solution; collect data on the results.
Study: Study the results; learn from them, especially if the process did not work.
- What worked? What did not work?
- How do you know that it worked?
- Repeat the process to or make changes and retest.
Act: Once the solution is working, standardize the improved process.
- Reflect on what was learned and what will happen next.
- How will the new process be standardized?
- Establish future plans for future cycles of improvement.
Benefits of Models, Frameworks, and Toolsets:
Models, frameworks, and toolsets help us see and think about the problem is a particular way, like glasses with different lenses. Using a variety of tools and methods help to dive deeper, from this research and analysis patterns and themes surface. Connections can be surmised. As patterns and themes evolve, you gain new insights.
Other benefits of using a structured process and frameworks include:
- They tend to push the group beyond a quick and immediate solution but also help them decide on a recommendation(s) within a given timeline.
- The process develops terminology that helps everyone in the group or even the organization have a common understanding of (for example, in Hoshin Kanri, North Box refers to the organization’s strategic priorities).
- It focuses on continuous improvement, constantly getting better at getting better.
- Toolsets also increase opportunities for productive collaboration at every level.
Many of the skills needed to effectively use the tools, model, and frameworks include capabilities and subcapabilities listed in the Impacting Organizational Capability domain of the ATD’s Talent Development Capability Model. These include:
- Collecting, analyzing, and using data sets
- Data mining
- Process analysis
- Gap assessment
- Assessing risks and consequences of changes
- Monitoring emerging trends
- Discerning insights from data
Skills needed also include using change management models and frameworks.
Judgment helps with analyzing issues, moving beyond symptoms, looking at objective and subjective data you have gathered and detecting flaws in the thinking process, and integrating data from various sources. It includes diagnosing the root cause using inductive and deductive thinking skills. It also includes using critical thinking as well as strategic thinking to imagine and visualize what may be.
Decision making is not easy. There is a continuum that ranges from jumping to an immediate solution or what is commonly called shooting from the hip to analysis paralysis that collects endless data.
While Eureka moments happen, organizations that thrive and stay on the competitive edge realize having all employees consistently using frameworks, models, or toolsets can increase their collective ability to solve conundrums, build alignment, and adapt to ongoing change. Building problem-solving skills throughout the organizations develop individuals, teams, divisions, and the entire organization. A takeaway for L&D professionals is to learn to use a problem-solving process with a variety of tools. If one is already used in your organization, try it. Then, model it and incorporate into the learning solutions you design.