Problem Solving Process

I am often asked to help teams think through solutions to their problems.  My go-to model is gap analysis.  Over the years, I have found it to be a very reliable process for organizing people’s thoughts and minimizing the amount of wheel spinning that typically occurs when a team engages in problem denial and solution procrastination.  Hopefully, you will find this overview helpful and will try the approach the next time you need to lead a problem solving exercise.

Problem Defined

A problem is a gap between a current condition (what is) and what must be, should be, or could be. Problems are solved most effectively when you take a systematic approach. High-performing organizations that strive to attain ever-increasing levels of effectiveness find systematic problem solving a critically important skill.

It is important to appreciate that all work is a process, a set of procedures or patterns of tasks. Each step in the process is affected by many factors (people, measures, resources, data, policies, etc.) than can impact the outcome. A problem exists when the current performance of a process fails to meet the Organization’s expectation. Therefore, to improve the identified performance gap, you need to – 1) fix the process, 2) improve the process or 3) create a new process.

Great teams do the following:

  • Understand work as a process
  • Identify important problems to work on
  • Hone their problem solving skills
  • Identify the root causes
  • Generate innovative solutions

The benefits of working problems in a team structure is the diversity of knowledge and experience you can tap into, increased creativity from team members building on each others thoughts, the collective learning from analyzing the problem and brainstorming solutions, and the increased team interdependence which will foster identification of win:win approaches.


To get at the heart of any problem, it is important to identify all the possible contributing factors. Root cause analysis is a process for tracking down the contributing factors. The concept is that when these root causes are eliminated or changed, it will make a positive impact on the work process outcome.

The process starts with a clear statement of the problem to be solved.  Writing a good problem statement is a skill.  If the problem statement is vague, the team will waste a lot of effort interpreting and potentially solving the wrong problem.  One helpful tip is to write the problem in this format – [Who] needs [What] because [Why].

Here are some examples

Project Managers need better quality leads because the current deal conversion rate is too low.

Management needs more information in call records because they are currently unable to determine what is required to become more competitive.

Finance needs reliable and detailed data on projected job growth because they must justify proposed incentive packages to a state review board.

The Board needs to raise more private sector investment because the state is cutting back on grant funding.Problem statements must not:

It is important that your problem statement does not

  • State an opinion about what’s wrong.
  • Describe the cause of the problem.
  • Assign blame for the problem.
  • Prescribe a solution.
  • Try to combine several problem statements into one.

A well crafted problem statement is unambiguous and helps focus the team’s efforts.  It also makes it much easier for a team to assess if the proposed solution is sufficient to address the problem.  I always make it a practice to review problem statements with whomever will be responsible for judging (potentially funding) the solution.  Unless there is alignment on the problem statement up-front, the probability of delivering an acceptable solution drops dramatically and the probability of having to engage in significant rework increases.  Getting alignment up-front sounds simple, but it may not be.  Often the person (management team) that commissioned the work has not invested the time to think through the real nature of problem they want solved.  You will need to ensure time is built into the schedule to have several conversations and expect several problem rewrites as you “peel the onion back” to really understand the issue.

The second step is to develop a list of factors that could be causing or contributing to the problem. These can be categorized as Strategy, People, Structure, Process, and Rewards.

The third step is to describe the major steps in the current work process. This will help in determining when the root causes exert their greatest impact.

The fourth step is to prioritize the root causes based on importance and develop solutions with concrete implementation action steps.


As a leader, you need to invest the time to craft a quality problem statement before commissioning any work.  Problem definition is a big topic in Total Quality.  Many of the articles I have read on Six Sigma procedures state that a poorly written problem statement is a leading cause of project failures.  As a consequence, it deserves significant attention.  Having a well-crafted problem definition also helps you better determine who should be working on the solution, what the resource requirements will be, and what a realistic timeframe for the team to create a recommended solution might be.  Under the pressure of having an issue to resolve, your tendency will be to shortcut this step.  Resist the urge, and take the time required to write a quality problem statement.  For the record, I am not  fan of delegating the authorship of a problem statement to the team you’ve assembled to develop a solution recommendation.  I believe that, as the leader, you uniquely own the responsibility.

Here is my promise – If you invest time and do a quality job in writing problem statements before rushing to solution mode, you will successfully solve even more problems and on a faster timetable.

What Are Your Thoughts?

How often have you participated on a team where the problem to be addressed was poorly defined?  What were the downsides of that experience?  Do you have any tips on how to construct a good problem statement?  Do you have examples of well written problem statements?

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