Methods for Problem Solving

Solving problems using the First Principles method and the 5 Whys method

Creating value and changing the world is all about problem solving. Either socially, economically, or technically. Even if your life pursuit is not about changing the world, you’re still faced with problems big and small every day.

Most problems that occur in life are not usually the root problem. In that, the problem facing you is actually an effect of another problem. When faced with a problem, your first instinct is to quickly resolve it. This is often the case in work environments where the pace is quick and people are looking for answers. The effect of this is that by not addressing the root problem, future problems can and probably will arise.

Lately, there have been several of these situations where a problem is raised and a solution is required rather quickly. The outcome of this is the solution is usually high-level and very specific to the individual instance. Or, the issue somehow resolves itself and we move on.

So what are some methods you can use to get better at problem solving?

5 Whys Method

A key response people can use to respond to problems is asking the question of “why”. In fact, there is a methodology for this called the 5 Whys. This methodology was formed by the founder of Toyota, Sakichi Toyoda, to help solve problems at scale. When a problem occurs, ask “why” five times to try to find the source of the problem, then put into place something to prevent the problem from recurring.

Example:

The vehicle will not start. (the problem)

• Why? — The battery is dead. (first why)
• Why? — The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
• Why? — The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
• Why? — The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
• Why? — The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

It’s a simple construct that allows you to quickly go beyond the initial scope of a problem that can yield huge benefits down the road.

First Principles Method

Another way to think about this approach is called first principles. The approach is very similar to the 5 Whys. This method was made famous by Elon Musk in his quest of creating SpaceX:

When looking at a problem, don’t assume any starting point for a solution based on what you already know, but work hard to strip it back, removing all your existing biases and known constraints, until you can’t strip it back anymore. Until you are at a point where nothing can be deduced from what you’re left with. You’re back to first principles, and you can start to build back up a new and better solution.

With either approach, the basic premise is the best way to truly solve a problem is getting to its root. It’s this foundational understanding that yields the greatest opportunity.

Originally published on George Ortiz.

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