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Auburn Technical Assistance Center (ATAC)

What are the characteristics of a good problem solver?

Is this an individual that uses: Plan, Do, Check and Act?

Or does this individual use the Six Sigma methodology of Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control (DMAIC).

No one can improve a process that is constantly changing.  We must stabilize the process to get the variation under control.  This work would fall into standards for each work station and/or job and training of employees.  We also need to collect data that measures what we want to control.

Managers want to select excellent problem solvers to either get rid of waste and non-value added process steps or defects.  Lean and Six Sigma complement each other in improving the process and product.  Training and experience in Lean and Six Sigma would be good qualifications for a good problem solver.  These two methodologies are process oriented.  With unstable processes, it would be best to use Lean first to get rid of the waste and stabilize the process.  In more mature processes, Six Sigma can be used to immediately target defects. 

Employees that want to become good problem solvers would be aided by understanding the characteristics of a good problem solver.  By becoming a good problem solver, the employee increases his value to the organization.

Therefore, I am listing the characteristics of a good problem solver to aid managers in selection of project leaders and for employees that want to be part of this selection.  Shown below are the 13 characteristics that a good problem solver should have.

  1. Start with a positive outlook.  Look at this situation as an opportunity.
  2. Understand the problem well by asking questions.  There are no stupid questions, only those you do not yet have an answer for.
  3. Approach the problem with an open mind.  If the only tool you have is a hammer everything becomes a nail.
  4. Look at the problem from the helicopter view.  Once you understand the problem in its entirety and context, only then can you determine the best course of action.
  5. Define the problem thoroughly.  Ask what, where, when, why, how and whom.  Write the problem down, draw diagrams, create plans etc.
  6. Dissect the problem into bite sized chunks.  When a problem is broken down, sometimes it is easier to see patterns, tools to apply and actions that need to take place.
  7. Think through the issues logically.  Simple problems don’t require a plan of attack.  With a complex problem or one which involves an extended time frame, mandates that an actionable plan identifying what needs to be done is crucial.
  8. Look for similarities with other problems.  When a problem is broken down into its constituents parts, you’ll find some of these parts occur frequently in other places.
  9. Don’t let emotion get in the way.  If you find you are emotionally charged, pause for a moment and let yourself calm down.

10. Don’t be discouraged by mistakes.  Mistakes are not the end of the world.  It only means that what you changed did not solve the problem.  When you start working on problem solving, usually conditions get worse before they get better.

11. Focus on the end state. Some find it is useful to then plan backward until you get to familiar territory.

12. Take notes and record your progress.  This ensures you can track back to the things you have tried and what the results were.

13. Check your answers and challenge your assumptions.  Only with rigorous testing can you be sure your solution meets the initial requirements.


I hope this article will help you select a project leader in the future and that employees have a better understanding of what it takes to be a good problem solver.


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