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.

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