Problem Solving – difficult puzzle or kids play?

After a busy year-end, the winter break allowed me a few days at home for a little relaxation and self-indulgence and, as is the tradition in my house, the completion of a 1000 piece puzzle. It is an extremely relaxing activity for body and mind as eyes search and hands reach out for lumpy-edged pieces and the mind wanders and drifts but slowly the picture starts to appear and I reflect upon the parallels between this holiday hobby and the troubleshooting techniques of my working life :

Starting with the boundaries

EdgeUnpacking the box, eager eyes are not distracted by the colours and shapes of the broken image. First task is to seek out the limits and find all the pieces with the straight edges to “scope” the puzzle and set the boundaries. In problem solving this phase is executed with the start of a problem statement: what is the object and its deviation? Then we search for data and organize it in order to construct a clear picture from the outside in.

Constructing the elements to make building blocks

Building blocksWith the limits set, it is always a challenge for where to begin. Expert puzzlers will aim to build around the distinctive features and obvious, almost easy to fit, puzzle pieces. In troubleshooting issues, some facts are easy to find and are immediately brought to the table while others require more perseverance and keen observation; which means that the right conditions help, such as good illumination and enough room to layout the pieces and ensure no evidence is hidden.

In the beginning, there seems an overwhelming amount of these interdependent elements, you almost don’t know where to look to find the pieces that fit. Some can be overlooked through obsessive searching for that specific piece that fixates for the moment, while other times we can stumble across a key item that was not the objective of our search.

So true too in our troubleshooting since we often become fixated upon a possible root cause and seek out the evidence at the risk of missing other key data. Important then to keep an open mind and maintain a rigorous process that builds islands of what we know to be true to bring the big picture into focus; we soon have more solid evidence than spaces in between and there is a final rush of activity to fill in the gaps with what is left.

It is all about close observation and logic

logicWhen the easy bits are done, the most difficult stage starts: the look alike parts. The key capability here in making progress is the ability to observe very closely . A friend was really good at this – staring at the pieces, comparing each carefully against the other, and then all of a sudden taking one piece and just fitting it in the right spot! It is the unique characteristics of the piece that needs to fit the confirmed surroundings that helps you further. “ What is special odd unique or distinct” is the key question to ask. The trial and error approach took definitely much longer and was actually distracting the others around the table.

The problems we face are the ones where  there is a lot at stake. And even then, we come across the trial and error attempts to solve the problem. When actually starting to look closely at the facts, using a logic approach, the group immediately recognizes their attempts were a waste of time. And the question “if this fix is the cause, why it is happening in this range of products and not in that other range of products”? is a simple one, but saving you big time. Unfortunately, a lot of effort, money and parts are already spent, without having a clear path to permanent solution. Taking a step back and focussing on the unique characteristics and the related changes is often the course of action that allows you to make progress. Like in a puzzle, there is only one solution possible.

Problem Solving – is it just a kids play?

Standing back, looking at the completed picture it all seems so right, so obvious.

Is problem solving as easy as finishing a jigsaw puzzle? Of course not! But even so, the frustration levels can be the same, as well the feeling of contentment at another puzzle resolved.









Speed up – we need it fixed!

Acting quickly to put out the fires

I wrote in a previous post about the need to regroup and really examine a situation in order to get clarity about what is happening and where we When the pressure to act is high--Lessons for IT support under pressureneed to start looking to resolve a problematic situation. Obviously there are times when urgent action is required, we simply do not have the luxury of time and even a thirty-minute delay is too costly to the business.

If your company is losing $50K per minute due to a critical incident, then you need to move, and move quickly. Managing the effect is the critical driver in IT environments and requires clear thinking and effective action. When there is a fire in a building, the fire brigade doesn’t pull a team together to start to plan their actions. An organized set of well-orchestrated actions–that have been rehearsed over and over again—are quickly taken. Because the team is prepared and running on ‘auto-pilot;’ things are managed properly.

A scattergun approach will not work

When something major goes seriously awry and the business is depending on you to make it right, you need the orchestrated action of a fire brigade. Yet too often people run in different directions to try and make things right. With luck, one of those actions will work, but there is a good chance that any one of these ‘solutions’, in isolation, will not be successful. In a worst-case scenario, you may even exacerbate the problem, making it worse and more complicated to resolve. The longer an incident goes on and the more attempts at applying fixes, the further you are from understanding what happened.

Thinking correctly under pressure

A sense of urgency can be counterproductive, unless thinking correctly under pressure is ingrained in the culture of the organization. Taking the time to correctly assess the situation is not intended to slow business down; the key is to enable structured problem solving to begin as quickly as possible when issues occur by training the brain to think and use experience efficiently

Speed up the process by using process

There are clever people working in IT. They can assess the situation and match it to similar events they have encountered in the past, considering and discarding possible solutions as they go. But they need tools to support and speed up this process and quickly identify a subset of feasible solutions to a crisis situation.

People working in emergency services—whether it is a fire brigade or an IT support desk– need a standard set of checks to obtain the facts, quickly take stock of a situation and— seemingly without thinking—take the right course of action. They are actually thinking in a deliberate way, matching the situation to previous scenarios faced; noting any differences, considering actions taken and weighing value of these actions in the current crisis. In this way, they can use experience effectively, testing it against current facts, rather than jumping to action immediately. (oops sorry, patient died, but my process worked)

A cool head in a crisis

The ability to keep a cool head in a crisis can be a natural personality trait (nature) or it can be cultivated (nurture) by developing successful problem solving strategies in an environment that encourages and rewards using them. Creating a culture that embraces a clear thinking approach to emergency actions helps IT teams succeed and thrive in a crisis.


Look before you leap

Get the big picture before jumping into actionStepping back and taking in the big picture allows you to see where efforts need to be focussed

One of the things I love about using the Kepner-Tregoe methodology is the clarity it gives me. By stepping away from the immediate actions and looking at a situation from a holistic point of view service outcomes improve greatly. Having the ability to quickly review the issue you are looking at from different perspectives will show that there is nearly always more to a situation than just one particular problem. In doing so, we are becoming more pro-active which results in an improved customer confidence.

There are two situations that we need to consider here, in this post I want to look at the way we deal with the type of issues that cause real disruption and annoyance to your customers, but are perhaps not considered to be critical business events. They are in your back log and need fixing, as they are the “lurking crocodiles” in your system.

One of the good things about the type of people that work in IT is that they like to fix things, one of the bad things is that they like to try to fix things before they really understand the true nature of the problem.

Get in a Scrum to regroup and focus – manage that backlog!

When issues are ongoing and a known resolution is not immediately obvious, then planning little “scrum-root-cause-analysis” meetings might be the way forward. Taking the time to pull your team together and focus on the issue at hand is not only advisable, it is one of the most productive actions you can take in this situation.

Often, simply talking through the issue, clearly defining the error and making sure you are ocussing on the source of the incident will give the clarity that is needed to direct efforts in the right direction. It is important to do this before changes are made to try and resolve the current situation, these changes may well serve to muddy the waters and ultimately make finding the root cause of the incident much more difficult.

Far from being a waste of precious time, the time taken to focus in on the real problem can greatly reduce the time it will take to repair the fault and get the business back to work.

The right people, the right information, the right direction

While this is a simple concept, there are some caveats I need to mention.

This way of working will not help if you do not have the right people in the room, or if you do not have accurate, factual information about what has happened, when it happened, who it happened to and where it happened.

You need to gather your subject matter experts (SMEs) and they need to have done their homework and come to the meeting with as much information as they can gather. They need to understand the importance to taking this time out, as well the managers circulating them and pushing them for action.

The other caveat to be aware of is the need to get stuck into content discussions with your team of experts. A strong leader is needed to “drag them out” of the techie details and provide them with guidance to create the bigger picture, identify information gaps and give direction to the next steps. Their expertise and knowledge has to be directed so it lands in the right time and in the right place. This will allow you to focus the efforts of the team in the right area, giving the best opportunity for a swift and successful resolution.

Changing mindsets

This can be a difficult thing for the action-focussed IT technician to accept. There is a mindset that makes stopping to talk about an issue seem like a mistake, busily trying every option they can think of to get things working again is what they are used to doing…and it makes them feel useful. Collaboration and process could actually inspire them to get new ideas.

This is the mindset that needs to be changed in order for effective and successful problem solving to become a part of your culture. I imagine that, if you are reading this post, you are ready to scrum and want to put KT into practise to solve your problems. The key to harnessing the effectiveness of this way of working is to embed it into the culture of the organization – make it “just the way we do things around here”.


Happiness is a choice – so what has that to do with root cause analysis?

A true story that happened during my coaching activities.

With a bit of the right focus you will happybecome happy: it will solve your issues!

Problem solving the KT way takes so much time! This is often what we (KT) hear when we challenge people to think first and act later. But a couple of weeks ago I was able to show a client that by just adding focus with the KT problem solving process, progress can be made within an hour and the an incident is instantaneously solvable.

The client had sorted some top priority IT incidents and several teams were scheduled for a “KT-Consult” for about an hour to learn how KT clear thinking could help. I was facilitating the content experts and asking KT questions: what I saw happening was heartbreaking. There was a lot of resistance to taking the time to analyze problems and a tendency to jump to the “obvious” cause.

For example, one incident was reported as follows: Arabic expiration date causing WX generation to fail. I suggested we take a moment and ask what is happening here and what evidence do we have, such as errors, screen shots etc.

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What is the shelf life of our skills?

Which skills are the ones that organizations need the most and are they sustainable?

Do those types of skills actually exist and how accurately can we ever predict which skills are needed in the future? Kepner and Tregoe, who founded KT in 1958, believed that critical thinking skills are what matter the most, regardless of the organization and prevailing conditions. After 57 years, I am wondering is this still a valid statement?

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