Why would you need 7 steps to problem solving? A decision needs to be made. It’s your call. What do you do? Throw a dart, spin a wheel, or ask the magic eight ball? Should you consult a Ouija board, or use structured techniques to analyze and plan solutions? It’s a leader’s responsibility to direct problem-solving, not bury your head in the sand and hope problems go away. Offering direction through decision-making is your job and makes you an attractive leader to follow.

7 Steps to Problem Solving 

Where Does Problem Solving Begin?

  1. Define the Solved State 

    First, consider the outcome you desire. Describe the problem when it’s no longer a problem. What does it look like?

  • What do you want to achieve?
  • Is there anything you want to keep?
  • What do you want to eliminate?
  • What do you want to avoid?
  1. Determine the Causes

    To define the problem, you must understand the causes. Ask yourself and others the questions outlined below. Gather information and input.

  • What is observable?
  • When and where is the problem?
  • What employees, departments, tools, systems, equipment, etc., are involved?

Caution: don’t get caught up in the “blame game.” It’s not who is right. It’s what is right. Often, the first reaction to a problem is who to blame, rather than defining the problem and causes. Blaming others will not solve the problem, but it will make you an unattractive leader.

  1. Define the Problem

    Use the solved state and the causes to define the problem.

  • How would you describe the problem?
  • What sets the problem apart?
  • Where is the problem located?
  • When does the problem occur?
  • How can the problem be isolated?
  1. Diagram the Problem  

    It doesn’t have to be pretty. Take the information you have gathered, the solved state, causes, positions, departments, systems, equipment, tools, etc., and diagram the problem. I like to take a piece of paper, write the problem in the middle. Circle it, and then run spokes to circles 360 degrees around the problem with points such as when, where, how, and who.

You can also do a flow chart starting with the problem and leading to the solved state.

  1. Develop Solutions

    Consider the following points when constructing a solution.

  • If the problem is complex, it may be best to break it into parts.
  • Keep in mind, you can do something.
  • Try looking at the problem as an opportunity to improve.
  • Analyze. Does the solution take you to the solved state?
  • If the solved state is clear, but the problem is hard to define, begin at the solved state and go back.
  • People work harder implementing their own plans. Involve everyone, as much as possible, in the planning.
  • Solve the problem that exists, not the one you hope exists.
  1. Implement the Plan

    Don’t wait. Start solving the problem.

  • When will the plan begin? Set a start time and a deadline.
  • Who will lead the solution team?
  • How will progress be tracked?
  • How will you know the problem is solved?
  1. Review the Progress

    Create a follow up plan.

  • Is the plan realistic?
  • Does the plan need improvements, additions?
  • When will you meet with the team?

What’s the Next Step? 

Let’s look at a few specific problem-solving techniques. I’ve included several; one size does not fit all. You may find combining techniques is the best plan for you. Develop your own problem-solving methods, borrow, create, and observe.

Use Brainstorming

  1. Freely share ideas. In a brainstorming session, there should be no judgment or criticism of ideas. This inhibits sharing. You should encourage everyone to share all their crazy, “wild” ideas.
  2. Solicit contributions from everyone: the more ideas, the better. Hopefully, an idea will spur another new idea.
  3. List all ideas. When complete, have the group pick the top 3-5, then choose the idea(s) to implement.


My friend Robert calls this exercise “internalization.” He gathers as much information as he can, then he thoroughly considers the information before making a decision. Gather information, get the facts, and don’t rush. Take the time you need to make your best decision. Remain objective. Don’t decide without the facts.

No matter how urgent the problem, snap decisions may cause more significant problems. Take a deep breath and ask for input from many. Too often, managers rush to decisions based on limited or incorrect information. Talk to members of the team individually in your office.

Many people hesitate to give input in a group. By conducting the conversation in your office, you add importance and control. Do not discuss the concern in the hallway or on the work floor where anyone can misinterpret the conversation.

Once you have, to the best of your ability, determined the facts, verify if the problem is covered by a system.

Internalizing within a system

Is there a system, which when followed, avoids the problem?

  • Are all team members involved informed about the system? If not, train them.
  • Were there consequences out of the team’s control, not allowing the system to be used? Can the consequences be controlled? If so, how?
  • Was the team informed about the system, yet they decided not to follow it? If so, corrective action should be considered.

Internalizing Outside of a System

There is no procedure in place for this contingency.

  • Was this a non-repeating, rare occurrence that may not require a system? You may consider training the thought process needed to cope with similar scenarios.
  • Was this a concern that will reoccur and requires a system? Ask the team to develop the system.
  • Do you currently have a system that does not adequately cover the occurrence? Have the team reevaluate or update the current system.

Evaluate the Process 

  • What commitments did you receive?
  • What was learned?
  • How can you improve your part in the process?

Follow up

  • Is the new system being used?
  • Does it work, and is it realistic?
  • Does it need to be adjusted or improved?

Role-Play as a Problem-Solving Method

Imagine you’re in the department or position where the problem occurs

  • What happens?
  • Why is it happening?
  • What would you change?

Picture the solution. How does the solved state operate? Imagine every aspect of the end-product, the solved state, and play it out.

Use Modeling as a Problem-Solving Method

  1. Construction Model

Build the solution one phase at a time from the ground up. What is the foundation, the walls, the roof, the interior, etc.?

  1. Recipe Model

What are the ingredients, proportions, spices, cooking time, etc.?

  1. Other Models

How is it like a machine, other organizations, or like previous problems? Make your own model.

Don’t Change Any Plan Without the Planners!

Once a plan has been submitted, implemented, or chosen, don’t change the plan without including everyone involved in the plan.

Note: If you’re blame/excuse-oriented rather than proactive, your team will copy this behavior. You are a model for your team. If you want your team less “defensive,” it starts with you.

Make this 7 Steps to Problem Solving Work for You

How you use or don’t use the 7 steps to problem solving is your choice. As a leader, your decisions are not expected to be correct 100% of the time (unless it’s brain surgery or air traffic control). You should have an easily defined thought process for your decision. When you can do this, you have a powerful tool to analyze your mistakes, failures, and successes. Improve the mistakes, limit failures, and repeat successes.

How Can I Help You?

I like to help people and organizations, but I have three criteria I consider before taking an assignment – I believe in what the organization stands for, I know I can help, and it looks like fun. If you have any questions, Contact Me. 

Does your business have a management training plan? Many organizations, large and small, use my book, The New Manager’s Workbook a crash course in effective management, as the basis for their leadership development program. Check it out.

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash