The problem solving exercises illusion:
what did we do last time that happened?

Six problem solving exercises are described here based on 8 problem solving steps and elementary problem solving suitable for problem solving in the workplace.

This page has two main sections:

* firstly, a description of the 8 stages of problem solving that comprises one of the best problem solving models

* second, six problem solving exercises based on the problem solving steps described in the first part. The exercises are designed to facilitate your learning of the problem solving model.

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To start with we have to dispose of a common illusion:

problem SOLVING never happened if the same problem comes back again.

The quick fix was an illusion and there is little benefit in repeating it, is there?

Last time the problem happened should have been the last time it happened

We fail when we have recurring problems because whatever solutions we used have not led to permanent change or action that prevents the same problem from coming back (i.e. we didn't achieve double loop learning).

So, how do we ensure that we are really problem solving
and not just doing a quick fix?

Using a systematic approach will usually help.

For example, one of the most effective problem solving models described here comprises eight steps:

step 1. identify, define and understand the problem.

Sometimes what looks like the problem, isn’t.

Sometimes you’re looking at the symptoms of a problem.

Solving the symptoms won’t solve the problem.

In this first step you need to collect data - the facts (as opposed to working with opinions or pet theories about the problem).

Depending on the size of the problem, and how long it may take to solve therefore, you may need to set some clear objectives and plan an approach

step 2. identify and analyse possible causes.

You are looking for root causes so don’t accept first guesses.

Probe beyond the obvious.

Also, you should search for more than one cause as many problems have several causes and if you stop at one you may think you’ve solved the problem only to find that it comes back again

step 3. generate solutions.

This has to happen after you have identified causes, of course.

Also, search for more than one (potential) solution.

This will give options from which to make decisions.

As the old saying puts it, the quality of the decision you make is determined by the richness of your choices

step 4. depending on the size of the problem, and the number of possible solutions you have generated, select one solution to test out

step 5 a big or frequently re-occurring problem may need a plan of action, but often you can go directly from step 3. to step 6.

step 6. take corrective action by implementing the selected solution

This will create change, of course. Click here for some inspiring change quotes that may stimulate new thinking.

step 7. check the results by collecting more data - have you solved the problem?

If not, loop back to step 1.

step 8. continue to improve by asking, “how can you make the solution better?”

Emotional or relationship problems may not lend themselves to this left brained systematic approach but try it anyway as it often generates some lines of thought or options that you can build on.

Alternatively, you might want to tackle emotional type problems with your right brain and your unconscious mind resources.

Or, there may be situations that require effective conflict resolution approaches.

Ok, so that's the 8 problem solving steps that make up the model. To help your learning and internalisation of it, let's do some problem solving exercises using the following four very effective problem solving techniques:

* brainstorming

* the 5 whys

* critical examination

* cause and effect analysis


This problem solving exercise is based specifically on step one of the stages of problem solving described above.

This is a process called, "measure and display", and it's purpose is to collect data, as objectively as possible, to avoid relying on opinions or emotions or past efforts.

It involves creating a simple capture mechanism to measure aspects of the problem and that will display the data to make obvious patterns or trends.

Keep it simple. Use your journal or learning log if you wish although a large highly visible piece of paper (display) has advantages.

Decide on the aspects you wish to measure and display and collect the data over a period of time judged to be appropriate. Analyse the data collected to detect root causes of the problem.

You can measure and display anything from how many times (and when and why) you were late for a meeting (or had an argument with someone) or, for problem solving in the workplace, how frequently a machine may go down (and for what reasons etc.).

So, this first problem solving exercise is easy:

* use an existing problem or recall a past problem, especially a re-occurring one, and set up a measure and display mechanism to collect some "objective" data so that you will identify, define and understand the problem.

Avoid being critical of yourself and pay attention to the process of doing measure and display as well as the data and learning it engenders.

Have a go, learn, make some changes, have another go etc. etc.


Click on the link above for BRAINSTORMING of the four problem solving techniques listed.

Study the explanation of brainstorming in whatever way works best for you and then select a past or current or upcoming problem and:

1. brainstorm the possible root causes of the problem

2. as a quite separate exercise, then brainstorm the possible solutions to the problem.

If you can, do this as a group with some other people who think differently to you and who nothing about the problem.

Capture what emerges from this problem solving exercise and what you have learned. Repeat as many times as you need to.


Study the explanation of the 5 WHYs technique by clicking on the link above.

Choose a problem and apply the technique to it, capturing outcomes and learnings as suggested above.

Don't underestimate this problem solving exercise, companies such as Toyota claim it has saved them $millions in the past.

Also, recognise that the answer to a "why?" may involve more than one element which will require many more than 5 whys.


Click on the link for CRITICAL EXAMINATION above and study the explanation of how this works before selecting one of your own problems to apply it to.

This problem solving exercise is a bit like doing a jig-saw puzzle of information - as you fill in more answers to the questions, the picture begins to become clearer.

If it doesn't, you might want to pause your critical examination and apply brainstorming or the 5 whys to the problem as well.

Each of these problem solving techniques will work well as a stand-alone approach but they can be especially effective when used in combination.


As its name suggests, cause and effect analysis involves working backwards from the problem (effect) to the root causes as explained on the page you will visit by clicking on the link above.

Having studied the description, choose a problem of your own and apply this problem solving exercise to it.

This technique is used along with brainstorming to create the "fish-bone" diagram involved.


This last of the problem solving exercises will come as no surprise.

Having practised with measure and display; brainstorming; the 5 whys; critical examination and cause and effect analysis, your final exercise is to select a problem and use all of the five problem solving techniques listed above on it, working through the 8 steps of the problem solving model.

Although, at first, this may seem slow or frustrating do be aware that the more you use these problem solving exercises the smoother and quicker you will become at applying them.

Also, as a final thought, would you rather be a bit slower, but finish up SOLVING the problem, or have a quick fix and the illusion of problem solving?

Problem solving exercises and techniques will expose the illusion of problem solving.

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