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Problem-solving versus Decision-making - There are some differences and some similarities between problem-solving and decision-making.  The biggest difference is the direction and achievability of the goal.  If the goal has not yet been attained and it is achievable, then one is dealing with decision-making.   Decision-making is focused on moving toward and achieving a new, desirable future (end-state).  Normally, there are multiple options for creating the goal (end-state), hence the need to select the better or best-value option.    An example might be a new car with more room for a growing family.  If the future goal has no known solution (a car that gets 100 miles per gallon) or if the goal is to restore a condition that was previously achieved (repair an older car), then one is dealing with problem-solving.   One form of problem-solving seeks to restore a desired past condition that has changed and is now an undesired present-state.    This is the focus of this website on problem-solving.   Another form of problem-solving is figuring out how to achieve currently unsolvable goals (which is not the subject of this website).  Thus, the first form of problem-solving involves a quest to remedy a current undesirable state of affair.  Both problem-solving and decision-making are similar in that they both require an action plan to get the results desired.   If the action plan is successful, then either a future goal will be achieved or past condition will be restored.   Another similarity of problem-solving and decision-making is that one must readily accept change and be willing to sacrifice what they have today to have something different - hopefully better - in the future. 

Deficiencies - The heart of problem-solving is finding and remedying deficiencies that are causing the problem.  The heart of decision-making is making a choice.  A problem is solved when the causes of the problem are identified and eliminated.  A decision is made when the best choice is identified.   Both require action as a follow up because neither identifying the problem or making a choice alone achieves the goal.   Only by taking the actions needed to implement the decision or to remove the deficiencies is the goal achieved. A complete 8-step problem-solving model is shown in Figure PS-1 below:  

Figure PS-1 An 8-step Problem-Solving Model Supported by a Decision-Making Tool for Choosing Between Alternatives

Problem Statements - The first step to solving a problem is to define it.   Most problems are defined by describing the 1) the original or ideal end state, 2) the current condition, and 3) the gap or deficiency between them.   Other ways to define a problems is to define all the symptoms or evidence that proves that there is a problem (a gap between what is and what is desired).   All problems should be documented.  The definition statement provides several advantages.  First, the problem definition provides a means of communication with others and sharing concerns and descriptions of the problem.  Second, the problem definition provides a reference point as to where the exploration for causes should begin.   Third, the problem definition serves as the motivation and reminder of the compelling reasons to solve the problem (the deficiency and/or the desired end state).   Ideally, a problem well stated is half solved if the statement is written close to the root causes of problem.    See discussion on root causes.   Most problems are first stated as their obvious symptoms.  But after wrestling with the problems for a while, the problem-owner begins to view and describe the problem as its root causes.  Once the root causes are known, the problem is close to solved.  The solution is simply one of removing all the root causes.  But of course, nothing is that simple. 

Symptoms - The first step in problem-solving is acknowledging that a deviation or undesirable condition exists and listing the observable symptoms of the problem.   The first rule of problem-solving is never try to solve a problem by fixing the symptoms.    Thus, the second step is digging until you uncover the root causes.  The third step is to find alternatives for removing the root causes.  If many alternatives are found, then decision-making must be used to pick the best-value solution in step 4.  Likewise, if there are more than one choice for an execution plan in step 5, use decision-making to select the best-value plan (least risk, lowest cost, fastest completion time).  Finally, the plan can be executed in step 6.  From this point on, the problems-solver need only monitor the execution of the implementation plan n step 7.  If all goes well, nothing more needs to be done, but if deviations occur, then timely corrective action is step 8.  Corrective action is a response to a problem and this activates another cycle of the problem-solving model starting again with step 1.

Desired End State - Often, the distinction between problem-solving and decision-making begins to blur whenever the objective of solving a problem is to accomplish more than just restore the status quo.  Oftentimes, the objective of solving a problem is to move beyond what previously existed and to realize a substantial improvement.  In other words, rather than just going for the fix, the goal is shifted upward to a longer-term desired state.   Still, finding the root causes and the factors that resist movement toward a better end-state must be identified first ( in step 4) before either solving the problem or achieving the desired state.   See the article "Solution Engineering: Ten Tips for Beefing Up Your Problem Solving Toolbox" at this website (http://home.att.net/~nickols/tentips.htm) for more information on tip #10 Focus on the Solved State (meaning: defining what the solution to the problem will look like). 

Root Causes - The crucial step in solving most difficult problems is identifying the root causes.  For some problems, the root cause many not matter.  If your home gets leveled by a fire, the root cause is irrelevant.  Your problems is how best to get shelter and rebuild your home.  But for non-trivial problems where the solution defies obvious identification, the root causes remain hidden until they are dug up.  

Removing Root Causes - For every effect, there is a cause.  Any effect is due to the interaction between a set of causal factors (inputs and process that are controllable by the problem-solver)  and the current reality (any aspect of the situation that cannot be controlled).  Thus, one way to view problem-solving is discovering the right formula of causal factors for producing the desired outcome given the current reality.   If currently reality has not changed but the desired outcome has changed, the problem is one of recovering or restoring the original causal factors.   Perhaps, some of the critical success factors are missing that were initially present.  Perhaps, some unnecessary additional factors are present that are disturbing the original formula.  In either case, the problem is solved by discovering what factors are missing that should be present and eliminating those factors that should not be present but are.   Once these conditions are restored, the original desired conditions will reappear.   Thus, problem-solving is focused on finding the causes of the problem and then reversing or restoring the original conditions.

Exploration - In another scenario, if current reality has changed but the causal factors have not changed, the problem-solver is faced with the task of discovering what new combination of causal factors might be able to restore the desired result/outcome.   This investigation may require an exploration to discover what works.  A bigger problem results if both the current reality and the causal factor have changed.

Input to Output Relationships - The relationship between what you put into something versus what you get out of it is reflected in Figure PS-2.  The problem-solver's current reality includes all the things that are outside their control.   Everything that the problem-solver can control are listed as either inputs and processes (processes are the methods by which inputs are combined with reality to create the current output/outcome).    The important lessons to be learned with this problem-solving model are the following:
1. A problem exists when the current output/outcome is vastly different than the desired result/outcome.
2. If the desired result/outcome was once achieved, but it is not now present, the cause could be either a change in causal factors (inputs and processes) or a change in the current reality or both.
3. If the current reality has changed, the original causal factors (inputs and processes) must be adjusted (changed) to recover the desired results.   
4. Selecting the right combination of inputs and processes that best fit the current reality can achieve the desired result/outcome.
5. Current reality is a constraint on what is possible to achieve regardless of what inputs and processes you currently control.  
6. It may be impossible to get the desired outcome with the current reality not matter which inputs and processes are selected.
7. If there is more than one set or combination of causal factors that could achieve the desired result/outcome, then problems-solving shifts to decision-making to pick the set of causal factors that are most efficient (least cost) and effective (best achieves the outcome).

Figure PS-2 What you put into current reality yields the results you get.    

Cause to Solution - To solve a problem, the problem-solver must discover the causes of the problem.   The cause of most problems is that the wrong combination of causal factors (inputs and processes) are present.    Once the right combination of casual factors are restored, the problem will be solved.   The solution to any problem is the "flip" side of the problem statement or the deficiency in the causal factors.   Whatever is the deficiency in causal factors, they must be remedied before the problem can be solved.  

Example - A woman defines her problems as "My husband is not as romantic as he was when we were first married."    The desired outcome or state of affairs for this woman is a "husband that acts as romantic as when the couple were first married".   What are the missing ingredients (causal factors) that were present when the couple were first married that are not longer present?  Once the missing ingredients to this problem are discovered, the solution is simply to put them back into the equation.   The tough part of problem-solving is that most people don't confidently know what the missing ingredients are, and if they did know, they might not be capable of restoring them.  The difficult part of problem-solving is that current realty may have change sufficiently so that no combination of causal factors can restore (or achieve) the desired result/outcome.   The next best solution is to get as close to the desired solution as possible with the right combination of causal factors that best fits with the current reality.  The first statement of this problem might be stated this way, "You want to be able to influence your husband to respond romantically to you, but you don't yet know how to recreate those conditions."  The problem is solved when the woman learns how to recreate the conditions that previously existed and to restore them.   She might have to think back to the conditions that prevailed long ago and ask herself this question, "What conditions were present when we were first married, that are not present now."   A follow on questions might include, "What can I do to recreate those conditions?"  Note the emphasis in this example is on what the person who has the problem can do to solve their own problems unilaterally on their own.   Again, most problems are solved by recreating the initial input conditions that are either not present or problems are solved by removing other influences that are disturbing the processes that are converting the inputs to outputs.    

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Website last updated on 11/5/06
Copyright 2005 Charles W. Sooter.  All rights reserved.