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Overview of the Problem-Solving Mental Process

Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

list the six steps of the practical problem solving process

Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change.

list the six steps of the practical problem solving process

Frequently Asked Questions

Problem-solving is a mental process that involves discovering, analyzing, and solving problems. The ultimate goal of problem-solving is to overcome obstacles and find a solution that best resolves the issue.

The best strategy for solving a problem depends largely on the unique situation. In some cases, people are better off learning everything they can about the issue and then using factual knowledge to come up with a solution. In other instances, creativity and insight are the best options.

It is not necessary to follow problem-solving steps sequentially, It is common to skip steps or even go back through steps multiple times until the desired solution is reached.

In order to correctly solve a problem, it is often important to follow a series of steps. Researchers sometimes refer to this as the problem-solving cycle. While this cycle is portrayed sequentially, people rarely follow a rigid series of steps to find a solution.

The following steps include developing strategies and organizing knowledge.

1. Identifying the Problem

While it may seem like an obvious step, identifying the problem is not always as simple as it sounds. In some cases, people might mistakenly identify the wrong source of a problem, which will make attempts to solve it inefficient or even useless.

Some strategies that you might use to figure out the source of a problem include :

2. Defining the Problem

After the problem has been identified, it is important to fully define the problem so that it can be solved. You can define a problem by operationally defining each aspect of the problem and setting goals for what aspects of the problem you will address

At this point, you should focus on figuring out which aspects of the problems are facts and which are opinions. State the problem clearly and identify the scope of the solution.

3. Forming a Strategy

After the problem has been identified, it is time to start brainstorming potential solutions. This step usually involves generating as many ideas as possible without judging their quality. Once several possibilities have been generated, they can be evaluated and narrowed down.

The next step is to develop a strategy to solve the problem. The approach used will vary depending upon the situation and the individual's unique preferences. Common problem-solving strategies include heuristics and algorithms.

Heuristics are often best used when time is of the essence, while algorithms are a better choice when a decision needs to be as accurate as possible.

4. Organizing Information

Before coming up with a solution, you need to first organize the available information. What do you know about the problem? What do you not know? The more information that is available the better prepared you will be to come up with an accurate solution.

When approaching a problem, it is important to make sure that you have all the data you need. Making a decision without adequate information can lead to biased or inaccurate results.

5. Allocating Resources

Of course, we don't always have unlimited money, time, and other resources to solve a problem. Before you begin to solve a problem, you need to determine how high priority it is.

If it is an important problem, it is probably worth allocating more resources to solving it. If, however, it is a fairly unimportant problem, then you do not want to spend too much of your available resources on coming up with a solution.

At this stage, it is important to consider all of the factors that might affect the problem at hand. This includes looking at the available resources, deadlines that need to be met, and any possible risks involved in each solution. After careful evaluation, a decision can be made about which solution to pursue.

6. Monitoring Progress

After selecting a problem-solving strategy, it is time to put the plan into action and see if it works. This step might involve trying out different solutions to see which one is the most effective.

It is also important to monitor the situation after implementing a solution to ensure that the problem has been solved and that no new problems have arisen as a result of the proposed solution.

Effective problem-solvers tend to monitor their progress as they work towards a solution. If they are not making good progress toward reaching their goal, they will reevaluate their approach or look for new strategies .

7. Evaluating the Results

After a solution has been reached, it is important to evaluate the results to determine if it is the best possible solution to the problem. This evaluation might be immediate, such as checking the results of a math problem to ensure the answer is correct, or it can be delayed, such as evaluating the success of a therapy program after several months of treatment.

Once a problem has been solved, it is important to take some time to reflect on the process that was used and evaluate the results. This will help you to improve your problem-solving skills and become more efficient at solving future problems.

A Word From Verywell​

It is important to remember that there are many different problem-solving processes with different steps, and this is just one example. Problem-solving in real-world situations requires a great deal of resourcefulness, flexibility, resilience, and continuous interaction with the environment.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how you can stop dwelling in a negative mindset.

Follow Now : Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

You can become a better problem solving by:

It's important to communicate openly and honestly with your partner about what's going on. Try to see things from their perspective as well as your own. Work together to find a resolution that works for both of you. Be willing to compromise and accept that there may not be a perfect solution.

Take breaks if things are getting too heated, and come back to the problem when you feel calm and collected. Don't try to fix every problem on your own—consider asking a therapist or counselor for help and insight.

If you've tried everything and there doesn't seem to be a way to fix the problem, you may have to learn to accept it. This can be difficult, but try to focus on the positive aspects of your life and remember that every situation is temporary. Don't dwell on what's going wrong—instead, think about what's going right. Find support by talking to friends or family. Seek professional help if you're having trouble coping.

Davidson JE, Sternberg RJ, editors.  The Psychology of Problem Solving .  Cambridge University Press; 2003. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511615771

Sarathy V. Real world problem-solving .  Front Hum Neurosci . 2018;12:261. Published 2018 Jun 26. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00261

By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

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The Six Step Problem Solving Model

Problem solving models are used to address the many challenges that arise in the workplace. While many people regularly solve problems, there are a range of different approaches that can be used to find a solution.

Complex challenges for teams, working groups and boards etc., are usually solved more quickly by using a shared, collaborative, and systematic approach to problem solving.

Advantages of Six-Step Problem Solving

The Six-Step method provides a focused procedure for the problem solving (PS) group.

All six steps are followed in order – as a cycle, beginning with “1. Identify the Problem.” Each step must be completed before moving on to the next step.

The steps are repeatable. At any point the group can return to an earlier step, and proceed from there. For example, once the real problem is identified – using “2. Determine the Root Cause(s) of the Problem”, the group may return to the first step to redefine the problem.

The Six Steps

The process is one of continuous improvement. The goal is not to solve but to evolve, adjusting the solution continually as new challenges emerge, through repeating the Six Step Process.

Step One: Define the Problem

Step One is about diagnosing the problem – the context, background and symptoms of the issue. Once the group has a clear grasp of what the problem is, they investigate the wider symptoms to discover the implications of the problem, who it affects, and how urgent/important it is to resolve the symptoms.

At this stage groups will use techniques such as:

As this step continues, the PS group will constantly revise the definition of the problem. As more symptoms are found, it clarifies what the real problem is.

Step Two: Determine the Root Cause(s) of the Problem

Once all the symptoms are found and the problem diagnosed and an initial definition agreed, the PS group begins to explore what has caused the problem. In this step the problem solving team will use tools such as:

These techniques help collate the information in a structured way, and focus in on the underlying causes of the problem. This is called the root cause.

At this stage, the group may return to step one to revise the definition of the problem.

Step Three: Develop Alternative Solutions

Analytical, creative problem solving is about creating a variety of solutions, not just one. Often the most obvious answer is not the most effective solution to the problem. The PS group focuses on:

At this stage it is not about finding one solution, but eliminating the options that will prove less effective at dealing with both the symptoms and the root cause.

Step Four: Select a Solution

In the fourth step, groups evaluate all the selected, potential solutions, and narrow it down to one. This step applies two key questions.

Feasibility is ascertained by deciding if a solution:

Which solution is favoured?

Acceptance by the people who will use and implement the solution is key to success.

This is where the previous steps come into play. To users and implementers, a solution may seem too radical, complex or unrealistic. The previous two steps help justify the choices made by the PS group, and offer a series of different, viable solutions for users and implementers to discuss and select from.

Step Five: Implement the Solution

Once the solution has been chosen, initial project planning begins and establishes:

The group may use tools, such as a Gantt chart, timeline or log frame. Between Steps Five and during Step Six the operational/technical implementation of the chosen solution takes place.

Step Six: Evaluate the Outcome

The project implementation now needs to be monitored by the group to ensure their recommendations are followed. Monitoring includes checking:

Many working groups skip Step Six as they believe that the project itself will cover the issues above, but this often results in the desired outcome not being achieved.

Effective groups designate feedback mechanisms to detect if the project is going off course. They also ensure the project is not introducing new problems. This step relies on:

In Step Six, as the results of the project emerge, evaluation helps the group decide if they need to return to a previous step or continue with the implementation. Once the solution goes live, the PS group should continue to monitor the solutions progress, and be prepared to re-initiate the Six Step process when it is required.

Overall, the Six Step method is a simple and reliable way to solve a problem. Using a creative, analytical approach to problem solving is an intuitive and reliable process.

It helps keep groups on track, and enables a thorough investigation of the problem and solution search. It involves implementers and users, and finds a justifiable, monitorable solution based on data.

You can read more about the Six-Step Problem Solving Model in our free eBook ‘ Top 5 Problem Solving Tools ’. Download it now for your PC, Mac, laptop, tablet, Kindle, eBook reader or Smartphone.

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list the six steps of the practical problem solving process

Problem-solving is a crucial skill to have for success in business. It makes you more effective, helps when making a decision, and to execute ideas. No matter how big and complicated your problem is, breaking it down into steps will help you feel more in control. You won’t wander in a fog, full of self-doubt, wasting energy on what you can’t change.

This six-step problem-solving method provides focused instructions to get the solutions you need. 

Step 1: Define the problem

Step 2: Determine the root cause(s) of the problem

Step 3: Develop potential solutions

Step 4: Select a solution

Step 5: Implement the solution

Step 6: Evaluate the outcome

6 problem solving steps

Each step should be completed before moving on to the next one . However, steps can be repeated. For example, if you’re on the third step, you can still return to the previous step, and redefine the problem. 

problem solving steps - define the problem

First Step: Define the problem

In the first step, you recognize what the problem is. Ask yourself: What am I trying to solve? You need to make sure you have a good view of the problem because you don’t want to be fixing something that is already working. Understanding this might be hard, especially if it involves a group of people, but it’s crucial for future success. 

In addition to recognizing the problem, you should also establish a goal for what you want to achieve . The flow here should be very clear: 

* Something is wrong or something could be improved.

* A clear goal for fixing it.

Recognizing a problem and setting up a clear goal for fixing it saves you from complaining or stressing about it. You don’t want to be stuck because of these negative emotions. Having a clear explanation of what you want to change means you’re on the right path.

problem solving steps - determine the root cause of the problem

Second Step: Determine the root cause(s) of the problem

Skipping to the solution of the problem without recognizing its symptoms usually means the problem will come back in the future. Like in medicine, we need to understand the difference between treating the symptoms and curing the condition. Treating symptoms helps you in the short run , but it doesn't eliminate the real reason for the problem. Recognizing the deeper issue helps to adjust the treatment and eliminate the root of the problem. Root cause analysis (RCA) distinguishes three basic types of causes:  

1. Physical causes - These are tangible, material items that failed (broken laptop, broken camera, a printer that stopped working).

2. Human causes - It means that people did something wrong or didn’t do something that created a physical cause (didn’t protect a laptop which fell down on the floor or didn’t refill the printer cartridge).

3. Organizational causes - It might be a process or policy in a company that is faulty (a customer didn’t get a refund because there was nobody assigned to that task). Finding vulnerabilities in the system, like a policy that is wrong, is a good thing because you can quickly work on improving it. Discovering issues caused by people helps you find out that maybe employees have too much on their hands and that’s why they omitted something. Physical causes can lead to the conclusion that you should invest in office equipment because two days without a working computer costs your company more than just buying a new computer itself. 

problem solving steps - develop possible solutions

Third Step Develop possible solutions

It’s time to get creative and come up with as many possible solutions as you can. This is a brainstorming session , so don’t rule out some ideas because they don't seem perfect. There’s an issue with a client and the only solution you can think of is flying out to space? That’s fine. Keep an open mind, and write down everything that comes to your mind. You’ll evaluate it later.

Writing down your ideas is an important step, especially if you’re dealing with a complicated issue. It allows you to see everything better and makes it easier to choose the right solution and take action.

problem solving steps - determine the solution

Third Step Select a solution

Now it’s time to go back to earth. Your job is to evaluate your list of ideas. Start by excluding those that are unrealistic to do or not helpful in any way. I guess flying to space can wait for now, but reaching out to a customer and asking them the right questions should definitely stay on the list. Which solution seems the most feasible? Think about the consequences for each of them. If you’re solving a problem for your team, think about it from their perspective . Which solution would be the best for those who will be implementing it? Here are some questions that will help you choose the right solution: 

In short, you judge the feasibility and select the best fit.

problem solving steps - implement the solution

Fifth Step Implement the solution

It’s time to put everything from the paper into action. However, keep in mind that execution follows only after planning. If a problem applies to other people as well, establish these key things:

While implementing the solution, it’s best to act in short iterations with testing the outcome and getting feedback from others. Keep in mind that there’s no need for it to be perfect the first time. That’s also the reason you shouldn’t get attached to only one solution. If you see that the solution you chose is failing to give you the outcome you desire, try using some of the different solutions you established before.  

problem solving  steps- evaluate the outcome

Final Step Evaluate the outcome

In last step devote some time to review the results. What happened after you implemented the changes? What worked, what didn’t, and what did your solution improve? Analyze if your actions made the required impact and if you addressed the root causes of the issue. It’s also time to look for improvements in the solution and to plan ongoing monitoring. You can also analyze what you’ve learned and what still needs to be learned when it comes to problem-solving processes and skills. 

Problem-solving skills you need

Remember that problem-solving is a process of constant improvement and that you’ll be repeating it. Don’t expect the perfect solution from the start or that the problem won’t appear in the future. In fact, don’t try to avoid problems at all because they’re part of your learning process. 

If you adopt an attitude in which you focus on finding solutions every time new challenges emerge, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and stress. 

Good luck with problem-solving! If you have some questions or you want to exchange ideas on how to best solve problems, reach out to me on @Twitter ! 

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Six Steps of Problem Solving

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8-step problem solving process, organizational effectiveness.

121 University Services Building, Suite 50 Iowa City , IA 52242-1911 United States

Step 1: Define the Problem

Step 2: Clarify the Problem

Step 3: Define the Goals

Step 4: Identify Root Cause of the Problem

Step 5: Develop Action Plan

Step 6: Execute Action Plan

Step 7: Evaluate the Results

Step 8: Continuously Improve

Six Steps to Develop an Effective Problem-Solving Process

by Rawzaba Alhalabi Published on November 1, 2017

Problem-solving involves thought and understanding. Although it may appear simple, identifying a problem may be a challenging process.

“Problems are only opportunities in work clothes”, says American industrialist Henry Kaiser. According to Concise Oxford Dictionary (1995), a problem is “ doubtful or difficult matter requiring a solution” and “something hard to understand or accomplish or deal with.” Such situations are at the center of what many people do at work every day.

Whether to help a client solve a problem, support a problem-solver, or to discover new problems, problem-solving is a crucial element to the workplace ingredients. Everyone can benefit from effective problem-solving skills that would make people happier. Everyone wins. Hence, this approach is a critical element but how can you do it effectively? You need to find a solution, but not right away. People tend to put the solution at the beginning of the process but they actually needed it at the end of the process.

Here are six steps to an effective problem-solving process:

Identify the issues, understand everyone’s interests, list the possible solutions, make a decision, implement the solution.

By following the whole process, you will be able to enhance your problem-solving skills and increase your patience. Keep in mind that effective problem solving does take some time and attention. You have to always be ready to hit the brakes and slow down. A problem is like a bump road. Take it right and you’ll find yourself in good shape for the straightaway that follows. Take it too fast and you may not be in as good shape.

Case study 1:

According to Real Time Economics, there are industries that have genuinely evolved, with more roles for people with analytical and problem-solving skills. In healthcare, for example, a regulatory change requiring the digitization of health records has led to greater demand for medical records technicians. Technological change in the manufacturing industry has reduced routine factory jobs while demanding more skilled workers who can operate complex machinery.

Case study 2:

Yolanda was having a hard time dealing with difficult clients and dealing with her team at the office, so she decided to take a problem-solving course. “I was very pleased with the 2-day Problem Solving program at RSM.  It is an excellent investment for anyone involved in the strategic decision-making process—be it in their own company or as a consultant charged with supporting organizations facing strategic challenges.“

Yolanda Barreros Gutiérrez, B&C Consulting

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Problem Solving Resources

Case studies, problem solving related topics.

What is Problem Solving?.

Quality Glossary Definition: Problem solving

Problem solving is the act of defining a problem; determining the cause of the problem; identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution; and implementing a solution.

Problem Solving visual

Problem Solving Chart

The Problem-Solving Process

In order to effectively manage and run a successful organization, leadership must guide their employees and develop problem-solving techniques. Finding a suitable solution for issues can be accomplished by following the basic four-step problem-solving process and methodology outlined below.

1. Define the problem

Diagnose the situation so that your focus is on the problem, not just its symptoms. Helpful problem-solving techniques include using flowcharts to identify the expected steps of a process and cause-and-effect diagrams to define and analyze root causes .

The sections below help explain key problem-solving steps. These steps support the involvement of interested parties, the use of factual information, comparison of expectations to reality, and a focus on root causes of a problem. You should begin by:

2. Generate alternative solutions

Postpone the selection of one solution until several problem-solving alternatives have been proposed. Considering multiple alternatives can significantly enhance the value of your ideal solution. Once you have decided on the "what should be" model, this target standard becomes the basis for developing a road map for investigating alternatives. Brainstorming and team problem-solving techniques are both useful tools in this stage of problem solving.

Many alternative solutions to the problem should be generated before final evaluation. A common mistake in problem solving is that alternatives are evaluated as they are proposed, so the first acceptable solution is chosen, even if it’s not the best fit. If we focus on trying to get the results we want, we miss the potential for learning something new that will allow for real improvement in the problem-solving process.

3. Evaluate and select an alternative

Skilled problem solvers use a series of considerations when selecting the best alternative. They consider the extent to which:

4. Implement and follow up on the solution

Leaders may be called upon to direct others to implement the solution, "sell" the solution, or facilitate the implementation with the help of others. Involving others in the implementation is an effective way to gain buy-in and support and minimize resistance to subsequent changes.

Regardless of how the solution is rolled out, feedback channels should be built into the implementation. This allows for continuous monitoring and testing of actual events against expectations. Problem solving, and the techniques used to gain clarity, are most effective if the solution remains in place and is updated to respond to future changes.

You can also search articles , case studies , and publications  for problem solving resources.

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One Good Idea: Some Sage Advice ( Quality Progress ) The person with the problem just wants it to go away quickly, and the problem-solvers also want to resolve it in as little time as possible because they have other responsibilities. Whatever the urgency, effective problem-solvers have the self-discipline to develop a complete description of the problem.

Diagnostic Quality Problem Solving: A Conceptual Framework And Six Strategies  ( Quality Management Journal ) This paper contributes a conceptual framework for the generic process of diagnosis in quality problem solving by identifying its activities and how they are related.

Weathering The Storm ( Quality Progress ) Even in the most contentious circumstances, this approach describes how to sustain customer-supplier relationships during high-stakes problem solving situations to actually enhance customer-supplier relationships.

The Right Questions ( Quality Progress ) All problem solving begins with a problem description. Make the most of problem solving by asking effective questions.

Solving the Problem ( Quality Progress ) Brush up on your problem-solving skills and address the primary issues with these seven methods.

Refreshing Louisville Metro’s Problem-Solving System  ( Journal for Quality and Participation ) Organization-wide transformation can be tricky, especially when it comes to sustaining any progress made over time. In Louisville Metro, a government organization based in Kentucky, many strategies were used to enact and sustain meaningful transformation.


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Making the Connection In this exclusive QP webcast, Jack ReVelle, ASQ Fellow and author, shares how quality tools can be combined to create a powerful problem-solving force.

Adapted from The Executive Guide to Improvement and Change , ASQ Quality Press.

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  12. 8-Step Problem Solving Process

    8-Step Problem Solving Process · Step 1: Define the Problem · Step 2: Clarify the Problem · Step 3: Define the Goals · Step 4: Identify Root Cause of the Problem.

  13. Problem-Solving Process in 6 Steps

    Here are six steps to an effective problem-solving process: · Identify the issues · Understand everyone's interests · List the possible solutions.

  14. What is Problem Solving? Steps, Process & Techniques

    The Problem-Solving Process · Differentiate fact from opinion · Specify underlying causes · Consult each faction involved for information · State the problem