US Army Corps of Engineers
Little Rock District

Problem Solving Process

Commander's Column

Commander’s Column
By Col. Courtney W. Paul

Let your Solutions Define you, not your Problems

To say the Little Rock District faces problems every day sounds negative. On the contrary, isn’t that why we’re here? Problem solving is our business. The solutions to these problems define us.

The engineers of our district’s early years didn’t guess how to build a dam. They didn’t carelessly layout plans to reduce flood damage.  They used a systematic approach that identified the real problems and analyzed every issue and plan before implementing a solution. The proof of their problem solving success is still visible today and our legacy is defined by solutions that still stand, not the problems that we faced.

Our organization is constantly judged on how we solve problems. Our congressional funding depends on our ability to reach solutions that positively impact our military and civil works missions. Make no mistake, law-makers and stakeholders don’t want to hear about our problems. They want to know about our solutions. They present us with problems and we give them solutions. Simply put, our systematic operations and problem solving abilities are a gauge of our critical thinking skills and ability to provide solutions. Providing sound solutions is how we get paid.  It is why the Chief of Engineers has been heard to remark that his vision is to be considered as the nation’s “Solutioneers.”

Problem-solving is a challenge, particularly when you bring in a group of people with differing perspectives and viewpoints.  To be sure, the diversity of perspectives and experiences makes for better decisions.  Within the Corps, our “unit of action” when it comes to problem solving is the Project Delivery Team.  The PDT, with the project manager at the helm, is the foundation of our ability to decide upon and implement solid solutions.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes; but solutions have one thing in common.  It must be born of a structured problem solving process. By using such a process, we can avoid many of the pitfalls that derail a decision-making process.  These pitfalls can blind us from seeing better solutions or worse, result in an impasse that keeps us from creating the right solution.  We all know this feeling  – when the day of the decision becomes the day of the “re-do.”  Following the common process spelled out below will help you and your team be a “first time go” at the decision brief and, more importantly, help your organization make better decisions.

The Problem Solving Process

1.   Identify the problem.  Life in your PDT will be much better if you do this step first.  It’s not fun haggling over the definition of possible solutions and realize that different members had different perceptions of what they were trying to solve.  A well proven technique is to get the entire team to agree to a single statement that starts with an infinitive verb and ends with “in order to” and a phrase that describes the desired outcome.  For example, “To determine the integrated prioritization of projects in order to finalize and defend the budget submission to HQ.”

2.  Gather Information. To solve a problem you must first understand it.  Gather information using professional judgment to find facts that are relevant to the problem.  Has the decision maker given us guidance in solving this problem? Are there things we must do (constraints)? Are there things we cannot do (restrictions)? It’s also our responsibility as problem solvers to recognize truth, bias, or prejudice of opinions during this process.

3.  Develop criteria. As tempting as it may be to rush to developing possible solutions, it is important to define the criteria we will use in our analysis.  Doing this first saves time by not exploring dead-end options and will help you build possible solutions that are truly distinguishable from the others. Criteria come in two types:  An idea must meet screening criteria to even be considered as a possible solution. Evaluation criteria are those qualities that are important to you in finding a solution.

4. Generate possible solutions. If you have followed the steps and developed the important criteria, the generation of solutions will logically follow and be far easier.  For example, if you have decided your evaluation criteria will be performance, cost and schedule then it would follow to generate options that optimize one of those criteria or tries to achieve a balance between them.  It is also important to make sure that all generated solutions are suitable, feasible, acceptable, distinguishable, and complete.  Any recommended solution that doesn’t have these traits is bound to be sent back to the drawing board.

5. Analyze possible solutions. Again, if you determined your criteria and developed your possible solutions with your criteria in mind, then analyzing how your possible solution performs based on the criteria follows naturally.  A good technique is to use the SWOT analysis or consider the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats presented by each possible solution.  

6.  Compare possible solutions against the others to determine the optimum one. This will help you identify the solution that best solves the problem.  The best technique is to put the possible solutions side by side in a graph and compare how each performs against each other on each criterion.  Then score how well each did overall to provide you with a recommended course of action.  Weighting – when used as intended – will help identify the solution that best supports priority criteria.

7.  Make and implement a decision. If you’ve followed the problem solving process, making the decision can be anti-climatic.  To a well defined and analyzed problem with a solid recommendation, success sounds like “hard to argue with that – your recommendation is approved.”

It doesn’t matter where you sit in the organization, you are a problem solver.  Use this process to go forth and find great solutions.

SWL Commander