Dear Colleagues,

Ranging from the plumbing blocking up, an intermittent electrical fault to the bungled design of an exotic process plant, we get confronted with problems on a daily basis.

Some of us get hugely remunerated for solving problems – an airline pilot for solving a problem which involves 45 seconds in his entire career as he wrestles a plane safely to ground, or Red Adair putting out oil fires. Some not so, such as the astronauts bringing Apollo 13 back. At the end of the day, as engineers, I believe problems are our stock-in-trade. Part of our reason to be at work.

For some reason, we are initially taught at college that engineering is all about design and coming up with a nice overall system - there is very little mention or discussion based on problems, until they occur. This is a huge oversight in teaching engineering – that problems are a key part of being an engineer. Perhaps, would-be engineering professionals would be put off by being confronted with a daily litany of problems to solve. If we don’t have problems, we don’t have a job. Interestingly, our most popular short courses (for engineers or technicians) are the troubleshooting and problem solving ones.

Fred Nickols ("Solution Engineering: Ten Tips for Beefing up your Problem solving Toolbox") gives some really excellent tips on a great sequence for problem solving which I have modified to my more simplistic way of thinking:

1. Focus on the desired solved state
Most of the time we contemplate a problem with horror and ignore what we want to achieve. With this mind set we focus on the problem and then move from problem state to problem state. Instead, visualise clearly what you see as the final solution and focus on this unerringly through the entire process.

2. Be clear about ALL your objectives.
To clarify this it is worth asking:
What are we trying to achieve/preserve/avoid/eliminate?

3. Expand your definition of the problem
The acclaimed "define the problem" is the most poorly understood and executed step in the process. And as you solve the problem, this definition changes. Do the following:
Locate the problem/Isolate it/Describe it precisely/Define it

4. Bounce around like Sherlock to solve a problem
The information you need is not in one structured pile, but in a heap of little bits scattered far and wide; both written down and in many people’s heads. And changing. Be Sherlock Holmes – the brilliant detective; find it all and bring it together.

5. Picture it
We are engineers after all and tend to be visual thinkers. Diagrams and schematics should be used as much as possible.

6. Don’t always fret about the cause
Causes can sometimes be fixed and should be investigated. But don’t waste valuable time and effort looking into a cause where it is not going to help you solve the problem.

7. Avoid disconnects
We go through this every day. Top management gives instructions on fixing a perceived problem. By the time it gets down to the electrician on the shop floor, the problem has disappeared and he is merely doing a useless job for which the reason no longer exists.

8. Know your own vision
We all have built in biases and approaches to doing things. Sometimes good and sometimes not so good. It is best to be ruthless about what they are and understand the overlap between our personal and the rational objective world out there when assessing the problem. Stand back and watch yourself solve a problem and try to understand your biases for next time. Use your strengths, but guard against your weaknesses.

9.Create your own system
You know your skills and expertise the best. Develop your own system.

10. Sharpen your knife
Keep refining your knowledge and expertise and sharpening your problem solving abilities. Try and approach problem solving with a win-win philosophy. Solving the problem will result in an improved overall system.

I believe in what the famous mathematician and scientist, Rene Descartes observed:

‘Each problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems.’

Yours in engineering learning,

Steve