Developing a Problem-Solving Process

BY RICHARD MARINUCCI

Most of MY columns have referred to specific problems or issues and appropriate solutions. This column will explain in general terms ways to help develop a system appropriate for addressing most problems that occur. You can adjust or adapt any system to meet individual needs. Regardless, remember that problem solving is a learned skill that you can improve with study and practice. People-solving problems improve the more an individual is forced to address issues. Developing a system and practicing it improves capabilities so that you can produce good results most of the time.

Process can be defined as a series of actions taken to achieve something or as a means to an end product. Basically, you start with raw materials and subject them to some process to produce an end product. If you have quality materials and a quality process, you will get quality results. In the case of problem solving, once presented with an issue, you will have resources at your disposal and your own process to help you determine how to handle things. This will yield your end results. Your resources include your network of people. Obviously, the more you have and the more talented they are, the better off you will be.

Everyone has a process for handling problems. Some people are better at it than others. An individual develops a process through education and experience, which are combined with the person’s instincts and natural talent. The process improves through practice and application to real circumstances. All processes involve gathering information; organizing the information; evaluating it; and then, through the use of experience and judgment, making a decision or setting a course of action. Organized, rational processes result in better decisions.

The ability to analyze a problem helps to find the cause of what went wrong, which allows for the proper action to “fix” the problem. Ultimately, the goal is to correct the issue and prevent future occurrences. Analysis of potential problems helps to avoid future trouble and prevents the need to take drastic action. Most problems generate from poor decisions made by people, whether they are employees, residents, or others. A good analysis can identify weaknesses that enable corrections to be made.

As an example, consider a structure fire. It is a problem that needs a “fix”—i.e., extinguish the fire. Something went wrong and started the fire. This applies whether or not it was intentional. Most immediate is the need to extinguish. The incident commander (IC) gathers the information through size-up, assembles the resources (personnel, apparatus, and equipment), formulates a plan, and then acts on that plan. Adjustments are made depending on the results. The more education, training, and experience the IC has, the better and quicker the decision. After the fire is out, the cause is determined. This is a deviation from the norm. With this information, another plan can be developed to prevent future problems of a similar nature. You can view virtually every problem, large or small, this way. The more training, education, and experience the problem solver has, the better he will be at making decisions.

 

A PROBLEM

 

What is a problem? According to Webster, it is a question raised for inquiry: an intricate, unsettled question. More precisely, it is a deviation between what did happen and what should have happened, and there is a concern as to the results. There was a deviation from expected behavior and actual behavior, and the outcome created a situation that is not acceptable. It is significant enough that action must be taken to correct the situation or administer discipline to prevent future occurrences.

Although we have been discussing problems in general, we probably know that most of the more significant issues we face are people problems. A people problem is a deviation by an individual or a group so that the observed behavior or performance is not of an acceptable standard and is of concern. It is clearly the most important issue any manager or leader must address. How you handle it is just as important as what you do. This means that the process must make sense and be justified. When dealing with people problems, there are a number of pitfalls, including the following:

  • Jumping to conclusions.
  • Generalizing.
  • Fuzzy facts or incomplete information.
  • Not being familiar with applicable laws, rules, standards, and procedures.
  • Playing social worker.
  • Focusing on blame instead of correction.
  • Delays in addressing the problem.

 

Knowing some of the pitfalls helps to better develop your process so that you avoid making mistakes that are clearly preventable. If you applied these pitfalls to a structure fire, you could see where you could create a bigger problem. Imagine what would happen if you jumped to a conclusion before having all the facts, if you treated every fire exactly the same way, or if you procrastinated in implementing your operation.

You can develop your own style and method of problem solving, but most likely it will include the following:

  • Recognizing that a problem exists (though most of the time, it will be quite obvious).
  • Knowing the urgency to “fix” the problem.
  • Gathering intelligence (fact finding).
  • Interpreting the facts and information (this is where your preparation becomes critical; you need to know what the information is really saying to you).
  • Knowing the resources you have available.
  • Considering any applicable laws, rules, regulations, or related information.
  • Knowing the players.
  • Considering any extenuating circumstances.
  • Determining the results you are hoping to get.
  • Considering any political issues.
  • Establishing your options.
  • Evaluating your options (what are the risks/benefits?).
  • Making a decision.
  • Acting on your decision.
  • Evaluating the results and adjusting as needed.

 

This may seem like a lot for some simple problems, but you probably do this subconsciously because of your experience and knowledge. As the problems get more complex, it is more important to formalize your process so you make the best possible decision.

Again, we return to the structure fire to see how this all fits. The problem is obvious and the urgency great (though you don’t have to act instantly). You perform a size-up to gather the facts, use your training and experience to evaluate the facts, consider the resources at hand, apply your procedures, assign personnel based on your knowledge of their abilities, and look for anything unusual. You quickly choose your tactics based on the options available and the risk/benefit. You give the orders and continually monitor the situation until it is brought under control.

Apply this to any other problem that you face. If it is a personnel matter, you first need to recognize the problem. Does it need immediate attention, or do you have time to consider everything? Gather as much information as you can. Based on this, what do you really think is the issue? Do you have anyone who can help you? You don’t need to take on all problems by yourself. Make sure you know all the players involved. Some may not be so obvious. If there are extenuating circumstances, learn them as soon as you can. Know if there will be a political issue. Decide what your options are. If you have time, review them with those in your network who can help. Make your decision, and implement it. Monitor the results, and adjust them if needed. You see, it is all the same, regardless of the problem. The only consideration is the complexity of the issue.

Chiefs, chief and company officers, and firefighters will face problems. Most will be relatively simple and routine. There will be instances of bigger issues, especially as you ascend the ranks. Your ability to effectively address problems and find an appropriate resolution will determine much of your success, whether on the fireground, in the station, or out in the community. As with most everything else, good problem solving takes training and education, experience, and practice.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department, Previously, he was chief in Farmington Hills, MI. He was president of the IAFC (1997/98) and acting chief operating officer of the USFA (1999). He has bachelor’s degrees from Western Michigan University, Madonna College, and the University of Cincinnati. He is an adjunct faculty member of EMU and Maryland Staff and Command.

 

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