Problems and Problem Solving Techniques

Problems and Problem Solving Techniques

A problem consists of the difference between an actual situation and a desired situation. The problem is defined as any event or situation, unforeseen, unwanted in an organization, a project, or a job which needs to be addressed and resolved before it becomes too complex. During the functioning of the organization, many events or for any other matter, something or the other things are happening which were not foreseen and therefore there was no planning exist in the organization to address them. Such events or situations are termed as problems.

Normally the word ‘problem’ is related to the dissimilarity between some existing and desired situation. Later, the traditional definition of the problem has been enhanced. The new definition considers the problem as a discrepancy or a gap, adding the notion that a problem is a discrepancy which is hard to close and which guarantees a place on its perceiver’s agenda. This definition eliminates issues which are unimportant and considered not possible to manage. Hence, an organizational problem is related to the difference defined by an employee comparing what is perceived to the desired output. Such problematic gaps or disparities can moreover include anything where a decision-maker can have preferences, including external environment, internal states-of-knowledge, and one’s own preferences.

Any event or situation can be the reason for problems, yet all the problems are not the same. Problems come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They can be of administrative nature or they can be of technical nature. They can be small or big. They can be simple or complex. They can be expected or unexpected. Organizational problems can be related to human resource, external stake holders, financial matters, plant and equipment, raw materials, quality, environmental issues, and many more. Every problem brings new challenges for the organization.

There are four levels of problems which are generally encountered in an organization. These consist of (i) simple problems which can be solved by an individual, (ii) simple problems for which the answers are known (these can be termed as more like a task than a problem solving effort), (iii) difficult problems for which there are no known answers and which require more than one person/discipline for finding of their solution, and (iv) problems which have been around for some time but finding solution for these problems is critical for the organization.

The problems which are faced by the organizational management and the employees can be classified into three main types namely (i) structured problems , (ii) unstructured problems, and (iii) crisis problems. Structured problems are those problems which are familiar, straight forward, and clear with respect to the information needed to resolve them. These problems can be expected, and the managers can plan ahead and develop specific ways to deal with them, or even can take action to prevent their occurrences. Unstructured problems are those problems which involve ambiguities and information deficiencies, and often occur as new or unexpected situations. These problems normally need novel solutions. Crisis problems are unexpected problems which can lead to a disaster if not resolved quickly and appropriately. Organizational managements are installing ‘early warning’ crisis information systems and developing crisis management plans to deal with these problems in the best possible ways.

Fig 1 Levels and classification of the organizational problems

Problem is something which the organization can never get rid of, how much the management tries and how many anticipatory actions it takes. Hence, to deal with the problems coming in the way of the organizational functioning, the management is to take actions for solving the problem as and whenever they are required.

Further, problems exist everywhere in the organization and all the times. However, the problems are not to be considered as something which is bad or undesirable. In fact, a view is that the organization is required to welcome the problems. Without problems to solve, the organization cannot expect any improvement in its functioning. Organization gains new knowledge while tackling the problems. The organizational management is to handle the problems faced by the organization intelligently so that the solutions found for the problems can be used for the improved functioning of the organization.

Problems arise in the organization on a regular basis in form of various shapes and sizes and solutions to these problems are also found in a routine way. However, all the problems are not of the same nature. The problems can be very different and require different approaches to deal with them. Some problems are short term, some are long term. Some involve decisions. Some involve a whole range of problems from which priorities need to be chosen. There is no one way that will solve all the problems. It is also possible that complete solutions to some of the problems are not feasible and the organization is to learn to live with these problems. There are various approaches, or ‘tools’, which help to solve certain types of problems. Most of them constitute only the common sense, but this is precisely what is lacking in many intuitive attempts to tackle problems. Management is needed to be comfortable with a number of tools and is not to be afraid of trying out several on any given problem. They are all methods which helps the people think and find way through the issue.

The concept of problem solving is quite old. The industrial revolution had brought more complicated problems. For solving of these problems there was a requirement of a scientific approach to problem solving. Though such an approach was taught to specialists, but mostly, the problem solving has been left to the individuals. Some organizations started teaching standardized, team methods to the employees for increasing their problem solving skills and efficiencies.

Organizational structure is needed to support problem solving. Hierarchy of responsibility and proper lines of communication is required to be in place before effective, formal problem solving can begin. Generally there is adverse human dynamics when structure fails. Problem solving involves more than just following a few given steps. It requires a disciplined way of thinking and knowledge of certain tools, methods and principles.

For solving of the problems in the organization, it is important to break down the problems into sub-problems so that the methods can be matched against a specific organizational sub-problem that they help to solve. However, it is not so easy to do in practice due to the lack of an appropriate and exhaustive classification of the organizational problems. It is hardly possible to find any comprehensive classifications of problems encountered by the management in the organization. The methodological issues regarding the process of organizational problem recognition and categorization are scarce and need to be developed. Nevertheless it is possible to make several assumptions such as (i) there are universal criteria for organizational problem categorization, (ii) organizational problems can be divided into different categories in accordance to their characteristics, and (iii) different levels of relationships exist between the defined categories.

There are several attempts to provide various dimensions and classification frameworks to help to shed light on the categorical relationships between organizational problems. For example, the theory related to problem solving has pointed out that problems can be programmed and non-programmed, or well-structured and poorly-structured. On the other hand, there are views that the problems can be related to human resources or technical matters. Other views are that problems are pertained to strategic or operational matters of the organization. Going beyond defining particular dimensions, several problem classification frameworks have been suggested. For example, an understandable and empirically tested framework of organizational problems has been developed. This framework introduces categories of the classification such as (i) human resources, (ii) strategy, (iii) operations, (iv) marketing, (v) production, (vi) management, (vii) MIS-data processing, (viii) external-environmental, (ix) communications, (x) customer related, and (xi) financial and accountingetc. This classification structure provides categorical expansion and development, the application of the organizational natural language, and the specification of structural relationships among the existing problem categories. Nevertheless, it seems that other problem categories can be identified, since the organization generally encounters a growing mix of problem concepts and related terms and the complex relationships among them. Hence, some other criteria for organizational problem categorization can be identified. Organizational problems are divided according to the key criteria into different categories as per Tab 1.

Tab 1 Classification criteria for organizational problems
Sl. No.Main criteria Categories
1Source of problem initiationTop management, middle management, lower management
2CauseRegulatory, directing, innovative, reparatory
3ConditionsStable environment, changing environment, turbulent environment
4QuantifiabilityPossible to quantify, impossible to quantify
5Decision optionsClosed (problems of assessment), open (problems of research and development)
6Level of involvementIndividual, individual with a collective impact, collective
7Management functionsPlanning, organizing, motivating, controlling
8ComplexityProgrammed, non-programmed
9Organizational levelStrategic, operational

The classification of the organizational problems given in Tab 1 is neither full nor exhaustive. However, it provides a good starting point for categorizing managerial problems encountered in the organization. Depending on the needs of a decision-maker other criteria relevant for the organizational problems, categorization can be applied. Grouping problems into appropriate categories is helpful when a manager is trying to find a suitable method for the solving of a problem for appropriate process of decision-making. Managers are supposed to identify a broad variety of problems and be familiar with the right problem-solving tool for every application. Hence, it is important to develop an appropriate classification of managerial problems encountered in the organization based on criteria which make it possible for decision-makers to select a suitable method for its solution, or at least reduce the uncertainty related to tool selection.

Problems generally throw several challenges in the organization. Finding solutions to the problems is also often full of challenges. Problem solving techniques are required to address these challenges. While the management regularly solves problems, there are a range of different approaches which can be used to find a solution. Complex challenges are usually solved more quickly by using a shared, collaborative, and systematic approach to problem solving. However, problem solving can be done in different disciplines (such as human resource, finance, operation, quality assurance, and marketing etc.) or domains (such as departments, divisions, and regions etc.) in the organization.

In order to understand the concept of problem solving, it is important to know the meaning of problem. Simply, a problem is any obstacle which hinders the achievement of a particular goal, objective or purpose. Problem solving is a way of using systematic or ad-hoc techniques in order to address the obstacle in a particular manner. It is the process of finding solution to overcome the problem for the achievement of a particular goal, objective or purpose.

Problem solving depends on individual’s skill and capacity. The pre-requisite of problem solving is that one has to be the owner of the situation. Unless and until one owns the problem, one cannot possibly solve the problem. Unfortunately, many of the problems are not the routine problems and it is not easy to solve them. However the principle for solving any problem remains the same and people are to spend the limited time wisely. It is of no use spending many days solving a tiny problem of little consequence when there is a big problem to solve which demands a good solution. This principle is often known as the ’80 / 20’ rule.

There are four modes for the problem solving (Fig 2). These are (i) predictive mode which is based on current performance of what is the likelihood of achieving objectives, (ii) proactive mode which consists of analyzing past failures and looking for future improvements, (iii) preventive mode which means putting in place solutions before the problems occur, and (iv) reactive mode which consists of solving the problem which has already occurred.

There are two approaches for problem solving (Fig 2). These are (i) traditional approach, and (ii) system approach. The traditional approach is based upon (i) fire fighting, (ii) quick fix, (iii) not taking enough time for analysis, (iv) going from one crisis to another, (v) look for the guilty that is who is responsible for the problem, (vi) a general list of standard solutions for fire fighting the symptoms, (vii) narrow focus resulting into sub-optimization of the solutions, and (vii) focus on the cost metrics alone and hope the processes to improve. The system approach is based upon (i) many factors making up a complex situation, (ii) fully understanding the problem and addressing the systematic root cause(s). (iii) finding of permanent fixing and improving of the performance, (iv) seeking total understanding of the process, (v) going in depth to know the underlying cause of the problem, (vi) taking of time to understand the big picture, (vii) eliciting dialogue, diverse perspectives, for applying of the solution, (viii) optimizing the whole organization, and (ix) focusing on improving processes which actually affect the performance metrics.

Movement from the reactive mode to the predictive mode and from the traditional approach to the system approach means movement towards maturity as shown in Fig 2.

Fig 2 Modes and approaches for problem solving

The ability of the organization to contemplate, evaluate, and solve complex problems is dependent upon a multitude of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. While the management of extrinsic variables can be more difficult to control, the identification and management of human variables such as emotion and logic are pivotal in the effort to increase the quality of solutions as well as management problem solving processes.

One of the most interesting differences in contemporary thought surrounding problem solving is the apparent conflict between the roles of emotion and rationality. In a study, the cognitive functions are divided between those which are faster, effortless, implicit and emotional as compared to those which are slower, conscious, explicit and logical. In the study, the views are that better decisions and solutions can be derived by shifting problem solvers and decision-makers from intuitive and emotional thinking to logical and rational thinking. Moreover, the replacing intuition with more intensive data collection and analytical processes enable the problem solver to construct linear models to produce relevant predictors. The suggestion here is that human beings make better decisions on complex problems if cognitive functions are transformed to resemble those of an emotion-free microprocessor.

There is an alternate study in artificial intelligence to inject learned emotions into microprocessor driven problem solving. A computerized platform has been developed which is capable of modeling six different emotions for decision-making namely anger, fear, distress/sadness, joy/happiness, disgust and surprise. It has been argued that the intuition and emotions play crucial roles in the ability to make smart, rational decisions in problem solving situations. Thus the ironic difference of current thought is that some believe human beings can reach better solutions to management problems when emotions are removed, and the mind is bent to perform more like a data-analyzing machine. Alongside, some contend data-analyzing machines can make better decisions in problem solving circumstances when they are capable of utilizing intuition and emotions. However, both are fundamentally correct. Emotion and rationality are inextricably linked and emotional intelligence can serve as the necessary bridge between the two. Moreover, the behaviours most often identified with emotional intelligence can be learned and applied in a practical manner to improve the overall quality of solutions to management problems and problem solving processes.

There is a need for managerial problems solving in all organizations. Even organizational decision making is formally defined as the process of identifying and solving problems. Normally this process consists of two main phases namely (i) problem identification, and (ii) problem solution. In the problem identification phase, information about environmental and organizational conditions is analyzed to determine if performance is satisfactory and to diagnose the reason for shortcomings. In the problem solution phase, alternative courses of action are taken into account and one option is selected. The problem identification phase is of high importance and requires a decision maker to have good knowledge of potential managerial problems in the organization.

For solving the problems and making the decisions, often people work under the stressed conditions and in very short period of time. As a result, when they encounter a new problem or decision they must make, they react with a decision that seemed to work before. With this approach it is likely to get stuck in a circle of solving the same problem over and over again. Therefore, it is often useful to get used to an organized approach to problem solving and decision making. Not all problems can be solved and decisions made by the following of the such method of problem solving. There can be two useful approaches to problem solving. These are (i) organic approach, and (ii) rational approach.

In case of the organic approach, the thinking is that the dynamics of the organization and the people are not nearly so mechanistic as to be improved by solving one problem after another. Often, the quality of the organization or the people comes from how one handles being ‘on the road’ itself, rather than the ‘arriving at the destination’. The quality comes from the ongoing process of trying, rather than from having fixed a lot of problems. For many people, it is an approach to organizational consulting. The following quote is often used when explaining the organic (or holistic) approach to problem solving.

‘All the greatest and most important problems in life are fundamentally insoluble … They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This ‘outgrowing’ proves on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the horizon and through this broadening of outlook; the insoluble lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms, but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.’

A major advantage of the organic approach is that it is highly adaptable to understanding and explaining the chaotic changes which occur in the organization and in its everyday functioning. It also suits the nature of people who shun linear and mechanistic approaches. The major disadvantage is that the approach often provides no clear frame of reference around which people can communicate, feel comfortable and measure progress toward solutions to problems.

In case of rational approach, a major advantage is that it gives a strong sense of order in an otherwise chaotic situation and provides a common frame of reference from which people can communicate in the situation. A major disadvantage of this approach is that it can take a long time to finish. Some people can argue, too, that the situation is too chaotic for the rational approach to be useful.

In rational approach, a person often prefers using a comprehensive and logical approach. It is often used when addressing large, complex problems. The seven steps followed in rational approach consist of (i) defining of the problem, (ii) examining all potential causes for the problem, (iii) identifying all alternatives to resolve the problem, (iv) carefully selecting an alternative, (v) developing an orderly implementation plan to implement that best alternative, (vi) carefully monitoring the implementation of the plan, and (vii) verifying if the problem has been resolved or not.

In place of the above seven steps model, there are also available, five steps, six steps and eight steps models. However the basic steps in these models are of similar nature.

As an example in one of the five steps model, the steps are (i) to conduct investigation (data collection), (ii) to perform root cause analysis (using problem-solving management tools), (iii) to implement corrective actions, (iv) to report the results, and (v) to follow up to prevent recurrence. In another five steps model, the steps are (i) identifying and defining the problem, (ii) generating and evaluating possible solutions, (iii) choosing a preferred solution and conducting the ‘ethics double check’, (iv) implementing the solution, and (v) evaluating the results.

In a six steps model, the steps are (i) to define the problem, (ii) to determine the root cause(s) of the problem, (iii) to develop alternative solutions, (iv) to select a solution, (v) to implement the solution, and (vi) to evaluate the outcome.

In one of the eight step problem solving model, the steps are (i) to define the problem, (ii) to determine the cause, (iii) to identify everyone’s interests, (iv) to identify options, (v) to evaluate, (vi) to decide, (vii) to take action, and (viii) to create a follow-up plan. In another eight steps problem solving model, the steps are (i) to clarify the problem, (ii) to breakdown the problem, (iii) to determine the root cause, (iv) to develop the counter measures, (v) to set targets, (vi) to see the counter measures through, (vii) to confirm results and process, and (viii) to standardize the process and to sustain the gain.  In one other eight steps model for problem solving, the eight steps are (i) creation of the problem solving team, (ii) describing of the problem, (iii) implementation of the containment action, (iv) identification and validation of the root cause through root cause analysis, (v) identification and choosing of the corrective action, (vi) implementation of the corrective action and their tracking for effectiveness, (vi) identification and implementation of the preventive action, and (viii) closing and congratulating the team.

All the problem solving models whether five steps, six steps, seven steps, or eight steps are used to address the many challenges which can arise in the organization. These different models lead to a range of different approaches which can be used to find a solution. Complex challenges for teams, working groups and boards etc., are usually solved more quickly by using a shared, collaborative, and systematic approach to problem solving.

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