Effective Problem-Solving and Decision-Making


Rob Stone, PMP, M.Ed. (Instructor, University of California, Irvine Extension)

University of California, Irvine

Week 1

  • Introduction to Problem Solving
Week 2
  • Charts and Diagrams
Week 3
  • Decision Making Methods
Week 4
  • Implementing Decisions

Course Overview: Critical thinking is the application of scientific methods and logical reasoning to problems and decisions, avoid common obstacles, test our beliefs/assumptions, correct distortions in thought process, asses problems accurately, evaluate alternative solutions, anticipate likely risks, analyze, synthesize, positive inquiry for individual and organizational problems, develop critical thinking skills, use case studies, models and proven methods.

Week 1 Introduction to Problem Solving:

1.1 Decision Making and Problem Solving in Organizations:
Decision: A choice that you make about something after thinking about it - the result of deciding.
Decision Making: thought process of selecting a logical choice from the available options.
Bad choice or No choice.
Three key elements in the process:
  1. Know your purpose
  2. Understand your biases
  3. Consider different consequences
Problem: perceived gap between the existing state and the desired state or a deviation from a norm.
Problem Solving: process of working though details of a problem to reach a solution.

1.2 Types of Problems:
Kind of problem - Nature of Appropriate Problem Solving Activity:
  • Problem with unknown cause - finding the cause
  • Problem with known/irrelevant cause - generating ideas that could fix the problem
  • Decision between solutions with certain outcomes - deciding on the one best solution
  • Decision between solutions with uncertain outcomes - deciding which solution has the highest probability of success
  • A jumbled list - determining the priority order 
1.3 Categories of Problem Solving:
Analytical: has a right answer - systematic
Four Algorithmic Methods:
  1. Root cause analysis
  2. Matrix decision analysis
  3. Decision tree
  4. Precedence chart
Root cause: tree of causes as different categories to the final effect node.
Matrix decision: task-resources XY chart, with a legend of different outcomes in the cell.
Decision tree: Decision as the start node, linked to uncertainty nodes linked to outcomes.
Precedence chart: Goal, means, how nodes with textual content. 

Creative: has useful answers - but no right answer.

Week 2 Charts and Diagrams:
Pareto Chart (also 80/20 rule by Vilfredo Pareto): vertical bar graph in which values are plotted in decreasing order of relative frequency from left to right. Roughly two sections, vital few and trivial (important) many. Determine problem categories, tabulate data, plot the chart, understand and act on the results.

2.2 Cause and Effect Diagram:
Three Terms same tools (cause and effect diagram, fishbone diagram, Ishikawa Diagram): visualization tool for categorizing the potential cause of a problem to identify its root causes.
-\-/-\-/-Effect where each branch is to a common node like People, Materials, Methods, Machines, then you add cause dependencies to each branch.

2.3 Histograms: graphical display where the data is grouped into ranges and each bar is plotted as a range of data, with characteristics of shape, central tendency, dispersion.
Shape: skewed LR (direction is opposite to the majority), uniform, bell.
Central Tendency: lower and upper specification limits, measures are mean (average), median (middle), mode (highest frequency value).
Dispersion: aka standard deviation types, typical distance from the mean.

Week 3 Decision Making Methods:

3.1 Group Decision Making:
Majority: Familiar, fast, know how to do it, but may leave large minority behind which may cause the decision to not be effectively implemented, never use this in a group that needs to progress.
Minority: sub-group can make some decisions, allows concurrency, clear guidelines state what decisions the sub-group can make, but some members may not have buy-in.
Expert: Fast, easy, can be very accurate, but group members are not involved, depends on group's trust in the expert.
Authority with no input: Fast, binding, but people's buy-in and support depend on their trust in the authority figure.

3.2 Decision Methods
Authority with Input: Group members are consulted/listened to, their thought and ideas are part of the decision process, there can be solid buy-in and support for this decision, but there may be confusion about the process, sometimes the decision has already been made.
Consensus: group members are involved, solid buy-in and support, implementation can be very successful, but it takes time, it's not easy.

3.3 Consensus and Ethical Decisions
Consensus: a group decision-making process that seeks a resolution acceptable to all participants, equal stake, collaborative, fair, no rank, distributed power, but not defined, people may not understand how, no specific method to reach it, opposition is not voiced, group members falsely agree.
Seven steps to consensus: start with agreement, clarify sources of disagreement, delineate the alternatives, identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives, if appropriate attempt to merge the alternatives, attempt to converge on a solution, if you cannot reach consensus you may decide to move on a come back to the issue later.
Reasons for Disagreement: people have not heard or understood each other, people hold different values and beliefs, disagreement is due to emotion (take a break, take the issue to a higher authority) or past history, don't attempt to reach consensus to resolve the issue.
Ethical Decisions: acceptable cultural ethics, involve the individuals who will be impacted by the decisions.

Week 4 Implementing Decisions:

4.1 Basing Decisions on Information
The expert knowledge can point us in the right way to find data we need to analyze.
Run Charts: a quality control chart used in determining whether the long-run average of a process is changing.

4.2 Control Charts
Control Charts: Like run chart but adds mean and upper and lower control limit.

4.3 Implementing Decision Results
Implementing Decision Results: means things will change, but it is not always easy for everyone, manage the change in a reasonable and understanding way.
  1. Prepare for Change (develop change management strategy, prepare the change management team, develop the sponsorship roles and model)
  2. Manage the Change (develop change management plan, take action and implement the plan)
  3. Reinforce the Change (collect and analyze feedback, diagnose gaps and manage resistance, implement corrective actions and celebrate successes)
Organizational Change Curve: explorers, pioneers, settlers (majority), stay at homes
Minor change: any change that only affects a small part of what is planned or is being done and can be implemented as the result of decision or a change order.

Major Change:
  • Automating an existing manual process
  • Implementing a new patient tracking system
  • Moving the deadline on a large project
  • Changing how people do their daily work
  • Adding to the scope of a project