Problem solving

by Rus Slater and Hans Vaagenes

Tools to help you solve problems

Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.

Henry Ford

Ishikawa cause and effect analysis

We can use this tool to help us to identify the root cause of a problem. This way, we have a chance of solving it today and preventing it from popping up again.

For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong.

Henry Louis Mencken

(For other examples of the fishbone diagram, look up Ishikawa in the Search feature.)

Having defined the problem, we can now look at the possible root causes.

Because we are usually under some (even self-generated) pressure to get on with some action, we very often find one root cause and assume that that is the only thing we need to fix. Going through all the possible causes gives us a better chance of finding all the things that contribute to the failure that created the problem.

The ‘families’ of Manpower, Method, Material, Management and Machinery are there as aide-memoires to help us to consider all the options.


As an example, if we look at the problem of, say, lost airline luggage:


The machinery is perfectly adequate to print the labels, transport the luggage and lift and lower it.


Some luggage is damaged by handlers throwing it on and off conveyors (but this is not the problem we wanted to solve!). Some luggage is lost because handlers aren’t checking the full manifest before clearing an aircraft for departure, thus some luggage remains behind, un-loaded.


At peak periods, there are insufficient staff to load and unload planes. Since departure times are fixed, this contributes to the likelihood that planes will be cleared with an incomplete manifest


Approximately eight per cent of unclaimed luggage has no baggage check-in label attached, suggesting that the labels are not sufficiently robust to withstand the transit.


The overall processes seem adequate in all but peak times, but management haven’t created rosters that are adequate to cover the temporary manpower shortages mentioned above (although there is plenty of evidence that they were fully aware of the issue). Lost luggage is not a subject of any KPIs of either managers or operatives so it has not been seen as a priority.

As we can see, Occam’s razor doesn’t actually hold true in many cases! There are numerous causal issues that combine to create the problem here and while fixing any one of them may make things a bit better, it is unlikely to solve the whole problem.

Within each issue, we can also use the 5Y approach...


5Y entails asking ‘why’ at least five times in order to drill down to the ‘root’ level.

1. Why do we lose so many bags?

  • Because lots* of bags don’t have labels with the flight number and destination on them.

2. Why don’t they have these labels?

  • Because they have fallen off?

3. Why have they fallen off?

  • Some** of them have fallen off because they are torn.

4. Why have they torn?

  • Because the labels are affixed to the handles of the bags and so get caught on the handlers’ gloves as they move the bags.

5. Why are they fixed to the handles?

  • Because that is the type of label the printers print at check-in; they have to fit to the handle.
  • ‘Some of them are torn’...what about the others?
  • Some bags come through with no labels on at all; we find the loose labels on the belt, but don’t know which bag they came off.

6. Why have they not stuck onto the bag?

  • The check-in staff haven’t taken off the backing properly to expose the self-adhesive strip.

7. Why else*** do we lose luggage?

  • Well, we don’t have time to check the manifest before we have to clear the aircraft to go...

* You could also have asked if the other bags do have labels and, if so, what’s the difference. For example, labels do not stick to certain surfaces, but will stick to others.

** You could ask why the other ones have fallen off.

The exercise demonstrates the value of drilling down into the issue by consistently questioning; it has identified two possible causes; weak labels (material) and inadequate actions at check-in (method). By asking the last question, marked***, we have also ascertained that there are other causes we need to drill into as well.

Improvise, adapt, overcome

Improvise, adapt, overcome. This is a mantra in the US Marines (at least, according to the movie ‘Heartbreak Ridge’).

It is particularly useful as a ‘quick and dirty’ approach to problem solving, when you haven’t got the time to put a lot of intellectual effort into assessment and analysis and/or you don’t have the time or resources to create elegant solutions. While it obviously has its strengths and roots in the fast-moving environment of the battlefield, it is also a valuable strategy to remember in the (hopefully, more common) peacetime world.


Improvising is about taking something from outside our normal sphere and using it for a non-intended purpose.

Traditionally, improvisation has been used to greatest effect with mechanical problems: those problems where you haven’t got access to the proper tool or equipment so you improvise with something that will fulfil the task. The most common old example here is the broken-fan-belt-on-the-car scenario, in which you use a pair of nylon tights as a short-term solution. Similarly, desperate tunnelers (‘The Great Escape’ or the tunnels under the Berlin Wall in the 1950s) had no access to piping for ventilation, so they improvised with empty food tins fitted together in line.

Examples of improvisation for bigger, more business-related, problems are given below.

Example 1


8 February 2009, by Marc Baker

We’re out of grit, so council buys in TABLE SALT.

Desperate council chiefs were snapping up TABLE SALT last night as arctic Britain began to run out of grit.

With a fresh mountain of snow on the way tonight, one local authority grabbed 500 tons of cooking salt from a supermarket supplier in Cheshire. Councillor Stan Waddington said: ‘This county needs to keep moving and if this shipment of white salt can help us do that until we can secure some traditional gritting salt then I am more than happy to go down this route.’


Example 2


Monday Feb 16, 2009, by James Ihaka

Skiers at Whakapapa this winter will be in for a less salubrious après-ski experience with a temporary shelter on its slopes this year.

Fire, police staff and insurance assessors were yesterday sifting through the remains of the three-storey Knoll Ridge Chalet and an equipment shed 200m away, both of which burned to the ground early on Saturday in two suspicious fires.

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts general manager Dave Mazey said it was unlikely that the chalet, which housed a 400-seat cafe, shops, toilets and other services for skiers, would be replaced in time for the ski season.

But he said a temporary shelter might be erected to cater for the up to 250,000 skiers who use Whakapapa each season, although that is still to be decided after talks with insurers and builders.

‘Whakapapa will still trade,’ said Mr Mazey.

Improvisation is usually a short-term solution: something that allows us to get on and get the job done, but not something we want to live with for a long time. On the other hand, improvised solutions are sometimes good enough to stand the test of the years. The ‘Portakabins’ erected as temporary classrooms at a primary school in Hampshire lasted for 25 years until the local authority decided that this ‘temporary’ solution was no longer acceptable from the point of view of planning consent. Hence an old saying, ‘There is nothing so permanent as the temporary’.


Adaptation is about adapting what we already have or do in our normal sphere and using that to solve a problem.

For many years, Deb Ltd had been a successful one-product company, manufacturing and selling a brand of fabric protector that protected silk stockings from soil and prevented ‘laddering’. The arrival of the Second World War meant that silk was being used to produce parachutes and not stockings; this meant that women weren’t buying Deb Silkware Protector and the company was getting into problems.

Deb hoped that when the war was over women would be back to wearing silk stockings, but after the mass of US troops arrived in the UK bearing nylons, it became clear that the silk stocking market was dead, hence the need for a product closely related to the former success. Deb had a real survival problem in the future.

The company desperately looked for a solution and noticed that some of their lady customers, now working in munitions factories and in such roles as ATS drivers and mechanics used the product to remove grease from their hands after work. The company re-branded the product: Deb Silkware Protector was no more; Swarfega – the first hand-cleaner of its type in the world – was invented.

Its name comes from swarf, the old engineering term for oil and grease and ‘ega’ as in eager to remove. As businesses in the late 1940s and early 1950s did not provide proper hand cleaners (only tablet soap), more and more people started using Swarfega after a hard day at work and its popularity quickly grew.

In its early days, Swarfega was made available in places frequented by men, such as motorbike shops, chemists and even barbers. The product is now sold in over 100 countries and renowned world-wide for its unique qualities.


Overcome, in the arena of problem solving, is the action of swamping or flooding and thus solving the problem by sheer weight of numbers or effort. Perhaps using a sledgehammer to crack a nut! This is a particularly useful way of solving a problem when time is of the essence, rather than resources. In the military field, an example is the area of demolition: when under time pressure to blow a bridge, the tactical commander uses ‘hasty’ calculations, which generally involve using about twice the strictly required quantity of explosives, crudely placed but guaranteed to do the job. When time is less pressing, a proper study of the structure is carried out and ‘deliberate’ calculations are made, which reduce the amount of explosive needed and therefore the potential for collateral damage.

In a commercial environment, we may overcome the problem of competitor undercutting by a massive ‘giveaway’ sale or a huge advertising campaign. We may cope with a surge in demand for our services by employing a mass of short-term temps. This could be for a one-off event or a regularly recurring problem, such as harvest time or the financial year-end.

So what analysis

This is similar to 5Y, but with an easy to remember name (because it is a pun on SWOT analysis).

Starting with a fact, ask the question ‘So what?’, in other words, what are the implications of that fact? Keep on asking that question until you have drawn all possible implications.

The technique is taught in military academies for use in what the forces term ‘Appreciations’: we look at each ‘fact’ that contributes to the situation and ask ‘so what’. (An ‘Appreciation’ is a form of the GROW coaching model applied to problem solving. Firstly, we identify our Goal, then we consider all the factors that create the Reality surrounding the situation, then we consider our Options and finally we create the plan that we Will adopt.)


Fact: our competitor has just released a product that undercuts our price by 10 per cent.

So what?

Customers will be attracted to the cheaper price.

So what?

This will reduce our sales.

So what?

We will have to find new customers to buy our product to maintain our income.

So what?

We reckon that the market is already fully mature.

So what?

We will have to be even more attractive to current customers so they don’t move to the competitors.

While it would be possible to reach this conclusion without the use of a formal technique, Appreciation provides a framework within which you can extract information quickly, effectively and reliably.

Repeatedly asking ‘so what?’ helps you to extract all the important information implied by a fact. Finally you can ask:

‘So what could we do about that?’, in order to move from a simple distillation of current factors to a solutions-oriented approach.

Wheel reinvention avoidance

As a tool this is almost too obvious for words: there are many billions of people on the planet and many hundreds of thousands of organisations, so the likelihood is that someone somewhere has already tackled this problem and has found a solution.

Given that

  1. People are generally helpful and friendly
  2. There is Public Relations benefit in publicising your success
  3. We all want our 15 minutes of fame
  4. We all want credit given where it is due

... it is a fair bet that the solution they found will be published somewhere. The answer may be waiting for you on the Internet (in a personal, corporate or special interest website), in an obscure technical journal or in a regular newspaper. If you can find what they did and how it worked, you can then use it to save you from re-inventing the wheel.

However, this is an approach to be used with a few caveats. Essentially, it should not be used as an excuse to justify shortcutting intelligent thought.

All the problems of the world could be settled if people were only willing to think. The trouble is that people very often resort to all sorts of devices in order not to think, because thinking is such hard work.

Thomas J Watson Sr

Paul Lutus has an even more direct opinion (Biases that mislead us), which is covered elsewhere in this topic.

You can certainly assess whether someone else’s solution is actually a potential way to solve your problem, but you need to assess the environment in which their problem manifested itself and the environment in which their solution worked, in order to see whether their solution will actually work for you.


In the aftermath of the 2009 ‘Big Freeze’ in the UK, many people pointed to the fact that Scandinavian countries did not have the same problems with snow as London had had, but that they receive far more snow. The overall solution in Scandinavia is large numbers of snowploughs, kept in readiness for their annual outing. If we simply accept that a solution is a solution, the UK would have bought a large number of snowploughs, but...

When questioned, Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, pointed out, ‘This is the kind of snow we haven’t seen in London in decades. We don’t have the snow-ploughs that we would otherwise need to be sure of getting the roads free.’ However, he added that a major investment in snowploughs would not make sense if they were used only once in two decades.

Snowploughs also have a strong tendency to strip surface-fitted road markers (the modern versions of cat’s eyes), which is why these fittings are rare in Scandinavian countries.