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A Problem-Solving Primer

What the facilities manager must know to get on top of solving problems

Part of the manager's responsibility is to recognize and define problems, preferably sooner rather than later. Managers must define problems in accordance with obvious gaps between planned goals and what conditions actually exist. They must also be able to look at future conditions and be able to determine potential gaps. Control reports help the manager monitor these gaps.

Problems should be specifically defined and appropriately eliminated as soon as possible. To help the manager define the problem, consider the following example:

INSTEAD OF: "There are unbalanced statewide distribution services,"

DEFINE THE PROBLEM AS: "Service waiting lists range from 'no wait' up to a six-month wait," or, "Some customers must travel in excess of 95 miles to get services."

Problem Solving: Getting Started

It is often difficult to know how to begin to solve problems, especially if you are individually trying to find a feasible solution. Fortunately, there exist techniques designed to give the problem solver a starting point.

Appreciation Technique

Appreciation technique is a simple and useful technique for extracting good, and maximum, information from dry facts. This technique is used by military planners.

Begin with a statement of fact. Then ask the question, "So what?" Keep asking that question until all implications of the fact have been revealed.

While ad hoc problem solving may go more quickly, the appreciation technique provides a basic guide to get information systematically about a problem quickly, effectively, and reliably.

Root Cause: The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a simple tool that can be used for problem solving. It enables managers to determine the root cause of a problem quickly.

By repeatedly asking why (typically five times), you drill down to the root cause of problem. The benefit of this problem-solving strategy is that it identifies relationships between different root causes of a problem and provides options for addressing them.

Consider the following example:

Problem Statement: Building tenants are unhappy with current climate conditions.

Sample "Why" questions that may be asked include:

  1. Why are the tenants unhappy with the climate conditions? It is too cold.
  2. Why is the tenant space too cold all of a sudden? The outside temperature has changed.
  3. Why does the outside temperature impact the tenant space temperature? The building's energy management system is set to turn off the heat at night to conserve on costs.
  4. Why is the energy management system set to turn off completely versus being contingent on outside temperatures? This is a system limitation.
  5. Why does the owner not look at modifying the system configuration to meet tenant needs?

The 5 Whys tool can be combined with other approaches to problem solving to include the cause and effect tool described later.

Drill-Down Technique

The drill-down technique allows the user to break down complex problems into progressively smaller parts. It makes problems more manageable and shows areas where more information is needed in order to come to a reasonable solution. The process resembles a simplified mind map, or a decision tree, which helps link information assumed to be unrelated.

Begin by stating the problem. On a piece of paper, write the statement on the left.

Break down (drill down) the problem. Create the next level by drawing arrows from the main problem statement out to the right for each factor that contributes to the problem, information relating to the problem, or questions raised by the problem.

Continue drilling down into points until the problem and all its contributing factors are understood. Sometimes outside research is necessary to understand contributing factors fully.

Cause and Effect Diagrams

Cause and effect diagrams are another visual tool to help the user think through a problem. The diagram makes sure all factors, not just the obvious ones, have been considered. These diagrams may also be called Fishbone Diagrams or Ishikawa Diagrams.

Begin by identifying the problem. Write down in a box to one side:

  • what the problem is
  • where the problem occurs
  • when the problem occurs
  • who is involved in the problem

Draw a horizontal line across the paper. This is the backbone of the problem.

Identify major factors contributing to the problem. Draw lines from the backbone for each general factor. These may include and be labeled, for example, as "people," "systems," "equipment," or "location."

Identify possible causes of the problem related to each factor. Draw these lines as "bones" coming from each factor. There will probably be more than one cause coming from many of the main factors. Complex causes may be broken into subcauses. Therefore, the main cause is drawn from the main factor, and each subcause is drawn separately from the main cause.

Analyze the diagram to determine the main cause of the problem. Further investigation of certain areas may be necessary to ensure erroneous assumptions do not occur.

Working Rules for Problem Solving

In the course of following problem-solving guidelines, there are some working rules to aid problem solvers in their task:

  • Preventive rules are intended to keep the problem solver on the right track and from getting stuck
  • Remedial rules are intended to help problem solvers "get free" when they do get stuck

Preventive rules include rapidly and repetitively reviewing the elements of the problem until a pattern emerges that applies to all the elements. The problem solver should also suspend judgment, not jump to conclusions, and thoroughly explore the environment surrounding the problem.

Remedial rules include producing a second solution after the first one and critically evaluating your own ideas. Others' ideas should be evaluated constructively, not judgmentally. Take a break when stuck, and discuss the problem with someone else who has not been involved with finding a resolution to the problem. That person may be able to see the facts more clearly. Most importantly, when stuck, change the representational system being used. That is, if a structured approach is not working, try an abstract approach and vice versa.

"Look before you leap" into a problem-solving situation that will not generate useful information, or any information at all. If what you do isn't working, then do something else.

Don't Waste Time on Trivial Problems

Managers should focus their attention on significant problems and weed out the trivial ones. Pareto's Law states that 20 percent of problems affect 80 percent of the results and 80 percent of problems affect 20 percent of the results.

Time is a valuable management resource, so problem evaluation should be completed before beginning any problem-solving process. When evaluating the significance of a problem, managers should consider:

  • how much control the individual or group has over the problem and solution
  • the seriousness or urgency of the problem to be resolved
  • how difficult it will be to work through the problem in order to find a solution
  • how much time it will consume
  • what the expected benefits of solving the problem will be
  • if there are enough available resources to solve the problem

This article is adapted from BOMI International's course Managing the Organization, part of the RPA, FMA, and SMA designation programs. More information regarding this course or the new High-Performance certificate courses is available by calling 1-800-235-2664. Visit BOMI International's website,

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