Problem Solving Up Close and Personal

Many times have my columns here touched the topic of problem-solving. However, these discussions normally covered the topic at the organizational level. However this time around I have crafted this column in a different way. I am going to discuss...


Unfortunately, in this case the problem rose to the level of inter-agency finger-pointing between the fire department and the police dispatch center. The dispute became protracted and could have become really ugly. However, cooler heads prevailed on both sides and a joint committee form to conduct a total system review. The committee called the company who was servicing the communications system onto the carpet and demanded a full accounting. After the pitiful efforts by the company which provided the support to the communications proved unable to come up with a solution, it was decided that a house-cleaning was in order.

In order to get the right solution to a problem, it is critical for you to be able to generate alternative options to use in solving the problem. In this case, it was quickly determined that a new firm was needed and actions were taken to solicit proposals from interested firms. In the meantime, the original communication's firm lost their contract and a after a period of bidding and bid acceptance, a new firm was retained.

Guess what? As part of their initial investigation of the system, the new firm quickly came up with the cause of the problem and within a week or so, had made the necessary repairs to the system. The fact-finding mission identified a number of problems which led to the hunt for a new firm. The new firm then solved the problem by correcting the problem which the original firm could not find. 

As you work to solve problems, remember that you must generate alternative options for possible solutions. Never jump at the first thing which pops into your mind as you develop the alternatives. It is then critical for you to evaluate the alternative options. Many people get hung up at this phase. They are so busy pondering all of the possibilities that they never make a decision. 

To this I say quite simply, pick the one which seems to be the best fit for the situation at hand. You also need to lay out the criteria which will determine what a solution to the problem will look like. Then get off the dime my friends and select an alternative which fits the situation. Then Do it.

The final stage of the process is really quite simple. Check your feedback to see how the decision is working. If that which was the problem seems to have gone away, pat yourself on the back, thank the members of your crew for their help and then move on. However, if the situation does not improve then use one of the other alternative solutions which I suggested that you develop. 

The object here is to evaluate the success of your choice. If it is getting the job done for you, then your decision is correct. If it does not solve your problem, choose another alternative and see how things go. If none of the alternatives work, you may have to start the process over from the beginning.

I can remember a fire back during my times as an incident commander inNewarkwhere the problems which my guys and I faced became so overwhelming that we pulled everyone out of the block where the factory was burning. It was so unsafe to continue what we were doing that we regrouped our forces two blocks away and went back to a totally different method of attacking the fire. Eventually, we did manage to extinguish it. And more important, none of the more than 80 fire department people conducting the firefighting operation were injured. That spells success to my way of thinking.

Let me suggest reasons for bad decisions. Regardless of our intentions, bad decisions occur from time to time. Why is this? Many times people charged with making decisions do not trust the people who work with them. It also could be that they have not trained their subordinates to make decisions or ever allowed them to develop as leaders. In any case, they ignore what people have to say and make all decisions themselves.

They ignore data that does not confirm their way of thinking. Bad decisions can result from this myopic view of life. Rather than soliciting advice and opinions, these people rely on their own preferences. They presume that they have seen and experienced everything. Quite simply, they say the heck with everyone else. I know what is best and the rest of you do not. This type of thinking can lead to serious consequences.

Sometimes people make decisions based strictly upon tradition. These are the people who live by the motto, “We've always done it that way.” These are the people who will always seek to use a 1 3/4-inch hoseline for every type of fire, from a trash can to warehouse. This is not a good way for people riding the right-front seat to operate.