Business Growth & Strategy

You’ve Got … PROBLEMS!!! Nine Fundamentals of Problem Solving …

As small to mid-market business leaders, you are quite literally assaulted with problems from the time that you walk in the door to the time that you leave in the evening. Your ability to solve and move beyond these problems will often determine your business success.

So what, then, are the fundamentals of problem solving?

1. Define the Real Problem.

This is the biggie: Make sure you’re solving the right problem. Toyota is justifiably famous for its problem-solving savvy in perfecting its production methods. According to Toyota, the key to its method is to spend relatively more time defining the problem and relatively less time figuring out the solution.

2. Solve the Root Cause of the Problem.

Don’t treat the symptoms; solve the root cause of the problem. There are numerous methods to determine root causes — cause mapping, fishbone diagrams, etc. For me, the easiest and most effective is to use the “Five Whys.” Ask a question, and to each answer, ask “Why?” again. Doing this five times should get you to the root cause of any problem.

3. Use Hypothesis.

Just like they do on the “CSI” TV shows, make a best guess as to the solution to the problem at the beginning — define the initial hypothesis. Then test this initial hypothesis by digging deep to determine whether the hypothesis is right or wrong and adjusting the hypothesis as the facts dictate.

4. Get the Facts.

Dig deep and get the facts to truly understand the nature of the problem and the possible solutions. Do the analysis to let the facts do the talking instead of gut instinct. Well-known business school professor Peter Cappelli reminds all of his students: “Whenever you are going with your gut, you are doing something wrong. In most cases, you can actually figure it out. So, you should sit down and figure it out.”

5. Keep the Solution Simple.

Any solution to a problem has to be implemented by your team. So, keep it simple. Be able to explain the solution clearly and precisely in 30 seconds. Limit the action items to solve the problem to three. Think 80/100: Go for the solution that solves 80 percent of the problem, but that is 100 percent implementable by the team — rather than the 100 percent solution, which is unlikely ever to be properly implemented.

6. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel.

Unlike in school, plagiarism can be good. If someone has a clever idea or way to solve your problem, by all means legally use it. “Not invented here” syndrome is just sheer arrogance.

7. Gain Momentum in Problem Solving.

In situations where you have multiple problems to solve (e.g., business turnarounds) pluck the low-hanging, but important, fruit first. Solve the easy problems. This gives momentum, shows progress, and gives your team confidence.

8. Consider Time.

With any solution, ensure that you do first what needs to be done first. Also, make sure that the solution can be implemented in a reasonable period of time. Solutions that take longer than a few months will likely fail. The momentum will die out or top management will move on to another “critical issue.”

9. Let Your Team Solve Its Own Problems.

Your team and many of your managers will gladly toss all of their problems onto your lap if you let them. It frees them up from thinking, and it helps them avoid sticking their neck out. Push back and let them solve their problems. After all, that’s what you pay them for! A good rule of thumb is that all problems should be solved at the lowest level, where the person solving the problem has accountability in implementing the solution. In almost all cases, that will be at a lower level than you!

By truly solving problems once and for all, you, as the leader, can go beyond being reactive. The endless stream of problems that you need to solve will no longer determine your schedule and priorities. Instead, you can become proactive and begin to focus sufficient time on the most important items that will drive your business to success.

This topic and more are included in the Vistage Connect™ CEO peer advisory sessions. Learn more. To read Shedd’s earlier post on Vistage Connect, click here.

David Shedd has 10 years of success as president of a $200 million group of manufacturing and services companies, having overseen 19 different B2B businesses. Currently, Shedd is principal of Winning B2B Leadership, an advisory firm focused on small to middle-market B2B clients, while looking for his next company or group of companies to lead. David blogs at and his book, Build a Better B2B Business: Winning Leadership for Your Business-to-Business Company, is now available on

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