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Solving problems.


This checklist outlines the systematic method of problem solving first put forward by Kepner and Tregoe in their work, The New Rational Manager.

With straightforward, common problems--for example, slugs eating the bedding plants--it is common sense to try a series of quick and tested solutions starting with the most simple or cheapest (slug-pellets) and then moving on to those which take longer to apply (changing the plants or soil). With problems of greater complexity it may not be so easy, or indeed advisable, to try quick solutions. The answer may lie in any one of a number of directions and the quick fix may do more harm than good. The Kepner-Tregoe method enables far more complex problems to be tackled, such as why staff morale is low, why sales are down, why complaints are up, why industrial relations are worsening.

The process:

* is systematic and thorough

* provides evidence to show how the problem was solved

* helps avoid the rush to jump to a solution without knowing the cause of the problem

* enables possible causes to be tested

* is particularly suitable for complex or fuzzy problems.

National Occupational Standards for Management and Leadership

This checklist has relevance to the following standards: B: Providing direction, units 5, 6, 7


Kepner and Tregoe define a problem as a deviation from the norm.

Problem solving differs fundamentally from decision making. A problem occurs when something is not behaving as it should; something is deviating from the norm; something goes wrong. Decision making is a case of choosing between different alternatives. Decision making is required for the question: "Which computer shall I buy?" Problem solving is needed for the statement: "My computer won't work".

Other approaches to problem solving can be tackled using Further Reading as a starting point.

Action checklist

1. Define the problem

Investigate exactly what has gone wrong; do not be influenced by people with ready-made solutions. Try to identify the problem through signals from routine statistical returns, progress meetings, suggestion schemes, reports and letters. rising tide of complaints, for example, could stem from faulty machinery, poor packaging, staff absence, poor staff training, product deficiency, false marketing hype and so on. Getting the definition accurate is crucial; otherwise you might find that you are solving the wrong problem and collecting possible answers to questions that have not been asked.

2. Gather relevant information

This is a key step, involving all factors which may have an influence on the problem. Go into detail on the people, activities, processes, equipment, systems, time-scales and conditions under which the problem occurs.

Ask the following:

* what is the problem? e.g. productivity on the shop-floor

* what is not the problem? e.g. equipment, working conditions

* what is different about the problem? e.g. the time it started

* who is affected by it? e.g. staff on shop-floor

* who is not affected by it? e.g. clerical, administrative staff

* what is different about those affected? e.g. a continuing rise in absenteeism

* what things are affected by the problem? e.g. meeting production targets, deadlines, quality requirements

* what things are not affected? e.g. machine capacity, skill requirements

* what is distinctive about those affected? e.g. rumblings of discontent; lack of, cooperation.

3. Identify possible causes

Causes usually relate to people, systems or equipment. Be careful not to blame the tool when it could be the operator. Asking the question--"What has changed from the norm?"--helps to identify the cause.

* when did the problem first occur? e.g. 6-7 weeks ago

* when did it not exist? e.g. before then

* what changed? e.g. the introduction of new work teams

* what changes might be relevant? e.g. new work practices.

4. Identify a possible solution

Once you have identified a likely cause, work out an hypothesis to test exactly what it is you are looking for and how you will know if you are right. The cause of a problem is always a change from the norm that has produced effects in some places but not in others. Find out where the effects are not happening.
What changes might be relevant? e.g. New work practices.
What causes might this suggest? e.g. Imposition of new scheme?
 Lack of consultation?
 Inadequate training?
 Dominance of certain individuals?
 Implementation too rushed?

5. Test the possible causes

Go back over the information you have assembled in steps 1-4 to test, on paper, if the cause finds a good match with how, where and when the problem occurs, to what extent it occurs, and who is affected by it.

6. Work out the solution

There may be a number of possible solutions (which may not be mutually exclusive), with some more appropriate than others. This is the time to move from problem analysis to a method for decision-making.

7. Make the decision

Identify alternative solutions and assess the consequences of implementing each. Testing solutions against causes provides one mechanism for doing this, group brainstorming (see Related Checklists below) another. Select the most promising alternative and produce a plan showing a schedule of actions to be performed by whom, when.

There may not be an ideal solution, but there should be a "best" one (even if "best" means "least worst").

8. Monitor the results

Track the changes which occur because of what has been implemented. Take care to monitor how other changes might impact on the action you have chosen, and vice-versa.

Managers should avoid

* forgetting the key principle of opposites, or negatives: what not? when not? where not? who not?

* neglecting to test possible causes against the data gathered

* jumping to an apparently obvious solution without evidence

* evaluating ideas too quickly.

Additional resources


Problem solving and decision making: hard soft and creative approaches, Michael

J Hicks

London: Thomson Learning, 2004

Decision management: how to assure better decisions in your company, J Frank


San Francisco Calif: Jossey Bass, 2003

Decision analysis for management judgment, Paul Goodwin and George Wright

Chichester: John Wiley, 2003

How great decisions get made: 10 easy steps for reaching agreement on

even the toughest issues, Don Maruska

New York NY: AMACOM, 2003

Directors dilemmas: tales form the frontline, Patrick Dunne

London: Kogan Page, 2000

Dangerous decisions : problem solving in tomorrows world, Enid Mumford

New York NY: Kluwer Academic,1999

Thinking straight: a systematic guide to managerial problem solving and

decision making that works, Steve Kneeland

Oxford: Pathways, 1999

This is a selection of books available for loan to members from the Management Information Centre. More information at:

Related checklists

Making rational decisions (015) Brainstorming (014)

Internet resources

Kepner-Tregoe Inc: Provides a brief overview of the Kepner-Tregoe Problem Solving and Decision Making (PSDM) technique.
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Title Annotation:Checklist 012
Publication:Chartered Management Institute: Checklists: Personal Effectiveness and Development
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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