Methodologies for “Problem Solving”

Recently we came across the article titled: “How to master the seven-step problem solving process: Structured problem solving can be used to address almost any complex challenge in business or public policy” from Mckinsey & Co.  This article makes a very useful and interesting reading material. Below is a table that shows the alignment of the STIMS Strategy for System Thinking and Transformational Skills as well the as the differences.

STIMS strategy emphasizes knowledge integration across the disciplines of Science, Engineering and Management, skills which are dependent on collective core capabilities of human resources involved in the project and problem solving. STIMS Strategy also requires treating every problem as a “System” and handling the solution at three levels: Awareness, Analysis and Synthesis.

The referenced article also makes reference to the “Design Thinking” methodology. The table below provides a comparison between this methodology and the STIMS methodology for System Thinking and Transformational Skills.

Figure 1
Figure 2.
McKinsey: seven-step process Institute: System Thinking and Transformational Skills.
1.Problem definitionDevelop a Common Language:  Define the “problem” as Input / Transformation / Output system. (See Figure 1)
2. Use logic trees to disaggregate the problem. (e.g.): “How can we save Pacific salmon?”Decompose the outputs between the “What?” – the deliverables (TECHNICAL Outputs) – and the “Why?”- value /benefit for the user (SYSTEM Outputs). This is the STRATEGY behind the solution. Transformation = The “SCIENCE”, the causal  connection between the inputs and the outputs;
ENGINEERING is the application of the “Science” to achieve the deliverables Problem and its solution = Knowledge Integration (Across relevant Science, Engineering and Management (Strategy) relevant to that problem.
3. Rigorous prioritization—we ask the questions “How important is this lever or this branch of the tree in the overall outcome that we seek to achieve? How much can I move that lever?Decompose the “inputs” in four categories: Investment / Expenses / Need / Constraints  or Platform (Hardware) / Tooling (Software) / Need / Specifications
Machine / Tools (Supplies) / Component / Parameters.
Develop tools and methods to validate the “Science” and the “Strategy”
4. Work plan: Depending on what you’ve prioritized: It could be breaking the work among the team members so that people have a clear piece of the work to do. It could be defining the specific analyses that need to get done and executed, and being clear on time lines. There’s always a level one answer, there’s a level-two answer, there’s a level-three answer.  One can solve any problem during a good dinner with wine. It won’t have a whole lot of backing.Complete the STIMS Diagram. Identify the gaps and find the data and resources to fill the gaps: This step leads to a natural formation of inter-disciplinary Team (Eco-system) across relevant resources inside the company, across companies and other players. Develop a “Hypothesis” – science based model – based on real life data. Demonstrate the hypothesis and its modifications: Using a controlled “testing” or “incubator” unit. More rigorous the understanding of relevant Science and Engineering more accurate and reliable is the testing and validation. At this stage the TECHNICAL Outputs and how to achieve them (in a scaled down version) are well established. Scale up the testing unit to achieve the desired outcomes – the SYSTEM Outputs.
Some people think of problem solving as a linear thing, but of course what’s critical is that it’s iterative.System Thinking involves three levels:
AWARENESS (of the problem as a whole) – Steps 1and 2 above.
ANALYSIS (of the problem in terms of relevant Science, Engineering and Strategy) – Steps 2, 3 and 4 (See Figure 2).).
SYNTHESIS (Knowledge integration and delivery of SYSTEM outputs) – Step 4
It’s also the place where we can deal with biases. Bias is a feature of every human decision-making process.Bias is an outcome of subjective (task oriented) approach for problem solving; System Thinking (and related knowledge Integration) is non-personal and hence distances human bias from the solution process. However caution must be exercised with respect to bias due to lack of relevant knowledge (Science, Engineering and Management (Strategy / operations) – core capabilities) behind the problem and its solution.
5. AnalysisSee Step 4
6. and 7.
Synthesize the pieces that came out of the analysis and begin to weave those into a story; That helps people answer the question “What should I do?” Motivating people to action
Synthesize the solution at three levels or scales:  
Feasibility demonstration (Bench Scale) where the Science is validated.
Scale up where the Engineering (and its constraints) are established.
Full scale implementation where the SYSTEM outputs (from Item 2 above) are validated.
“Design Thinking”:
Start with an incredible amount of empathy for the user and use that to define the problem; go out in the wild and spend an enormous amount of time seeing how people interact with objects, seeing the experience they’re getting, seeing the pain points or joy—and uses that to infer and define the problem.
System thinking and Transformational Skills (Seven steps):
1. Develop a common language: Define the problem as Input / Transformation / Output system
2. Decompose the “problem” into relevant Science / Engg. / Mgt.
3. Distinguish between “deliverables” and “Value/benefits” – end user experience (Technical Vs. System Outputs).
4. Emphasize on Science and Strategy;
Rely on diagnostic tools, in-process (real life) data and analysis.
5. Eco – system Development (Every solution requires many partners both inside the company as well as outside).All partners in the eco-system are connected through the common Science, Engineering and Strategy (System Outputs).
6. End to End Innovation (Awareness to Analysis to SYNTHESIS)
7. Emotional Intelligence (for innovation and problem solving)