We can't solve a problem unless we can get to the cause. Trying to fix the symptoms is not the best approach. The difficulty of establishing causation in real life situations where there are lots of factors involved. Sometimes there is more than one cause. Sometimes related events are not linked so we might pick the wrong assumed cause to work on.
- The absolute first step of problem solving and the one that often gets missed out is to be sure you've got the right cause. Facing the wrong root cause won't help. For example, replacing the wrong part, or even replacing the wrong person. This happens all the time. For example, many people think that if they could get a pay rise they would enjoy their work more and be happy in their life. But money might not be the cause of their unhappiness or their lack of enjoyment of their job.
Or if you're not sleeping well, is the cause the fact that your bed isn't comfortable enough or the room isn't dark enough, or there's noise, or is it stress inside your head? If it's stress, then a new bed won't help. Sometimes we don't know the cause, so we resort to living with the problem instead. In factories, this would mean using inspection to just throw away the bad ones, which is wasteful, and also, a few bad ones will still always get through. In one factory where I worked we made very thin plastic sheets and the machine had about 100 settings.
There were loads of rollers with temperature and pressure and speed settings and when the machine was working badly, we just fiddled with everything, hoping to get the combination right. It was only after months of experimenting that we found that the cause was one roller. It had to be running at just the right speed. So, we put a very accurate speed controller on that one roller. It was finding the cause that was the key. Sometimes there are two causes and we only know about one of them, so the problem continues, even after we think we've fixed it.
An example of this would be your computer running slowly and maybe there are a number of unwanted programs running on it. Finding just one won't be enough. Sometimes one cause may have two or more effects and we only see the effects, so we start to assume that one effect is causing the other. For example, in hot weather, more people go swimming in the sea, and some get into difficulties and even drown, which is clearly a problem that needs solving. But also in hot weather, more people eat ice cream, and if you were monitoring these two things, you'd notice a correlation between ice cream consumption and drowning, and you might start thinking about banning ice cream.
But, in fact, if you banned ice cream it wouldn't solve the problem at all, because you haven't got to the root cause, which is the hot weather. So, step one is to work out the cause and tackle that. You have to make sure it's the real cause. And the best way to do that is to compare control groups. Is there a difference in the swimming accidents between people who've eaten ice cream and those who haven't? If all of the people who get into difficulties have recently been eating ice cream, then it may indeed be the cause unless everyone on the beach has eaten ice cream.
Comparing the proportions of ice cream eating on the beach and in the swimmers who get into difficulties, that's the way to prove it's the real cause. And if it's not, then you have to keep looking for what might be. So, the first part of the process is to get a list of possible causes, everything that's different about the ones who have a problem, and then work out which one or ones are the real cause. Then you can work on fixing that problem. So, for the problem you have in mind, what's the root cause? Are you sure there aren't any other causes as well?
- Identifying the real problem
- Generating possible solutions
- Boosting your creativity
- Using your intuition and logic
- Selecting the best solution
- Considering implementation