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The Simplex Process – A Robust Creative Problem-Solving Process

| February 15, 2011

by Jim Bruce

To some extent, and more so for some than others, we are all problem solvers.  Most of the time we use ad hoc, informal, personal processes to solve problems.  And, these often work at the “good enough” level.  However, sometimes we miss good solutions, and even fail to identify the problem correctly in the first place.

Today’s reading focuses on an eight-step, problem-solving process, the Simplex Process, created by Min Basadur and presented in his book, “The Power of Innovation.”  The reading itself is a description of the process – “The Simplex Process – Problem Solving Training” – from the Mindtools website.  [Please note that many of the document’s embedded links take you to the fee-based, Members Only section of this website.  I’ve found other good references to these topics in Wikipedia and elsewhere on the web.]

The Simplex Process is a simple, yet powerful method for solving problems and executing projects of any scale.  The process, instead of being represented as a single, straight-line process is represented as a circle.  This reminds us of the importance of continuous improvement, both to us and to our clients.

The Eight Steps

1.  Problem Finding:  Often the problem is obvious.  But, sometimes the obvious problem we see addresses the symptoms and not the root cause.  So, it’s helpful to stop before jumping into solution mode to ask some questions:

     – what would our customers what us to improve?

     – what could clients do better if we could help them?

    – what’s failing in the process?

     – …

2, Fact Finding:  What do I know about the issue?

     – collect and analyze the data?

     – how do different people see the problem?

     – what solutions have been tried?

     – what would be the benefits?

     –  …

3.  Problem Definition:  Now that you understand the problem area, you can define the specific issue you are going to address.  You need to get the issue bounded appropriately.  Too broad and you’ll not have either the time or the resources to address the issue effectively.  Too narrow and you may only address the symptoms.  Basadur suggests asking “Why?” to explore broadening a question and “What’s stopping you?” to narrow one.

4.  Idea Finding:  Here you generate problem solving ideas.  Talk with your team and your colleagues.  Use focus groups or brain storming.  This is a step of generating ideas, not of analyzing or critiquing them.

5.  Evaluation and Selection:  In this step, you evaluate the ideas that have been developed and choose one to take forward.  That choice might be very obvious.  If not, you evaluate the options:

     – is the option consistent with the desired future state and strategies being pursued

     – what will be the impact of the solution

     – what will be the cost of the solution

     – does the benefit justify the cost

     – …

6.  Planning:  Once you’ve made a choice, it’s time to plan the implementation.  For solving small problems or executing small projects, a set of action steps, like the IT Leaders Program uses for setting personal goals, may be adequate.  Larger problems or projects will benefit from using a more formal project management approach.

7.  Sell the Idea:  If you have not already done so, now is the time to let the stakeholders associated with your idea in or what you and your team are up to.  (This may be an appropriate time to flip back to the pages in your Leaders Program workbook to the discussion there about stakeholder communication.  Since larger solutions will involve culture, internal politics, and change, you may want to scan those topics as well.)

8.  Action:  Now that you have finished your preparation, it’s time to get to work on the solution.  Here’s where the careful thinking and planning pays off with a faster, less eventful solution.

Although following these eight simple steps may seem laborious, my experience is that it pays off even for simple problems.  Think of these steps as a plan, a simple check list:

1.  What is the perceived problem?

2.  What is the data associated with the problem?

3.  What problem am I actually going to solve?

4.  What options are available?

5.  Which option do I choose?

7.  Who are the stakeholders?  Get them on board.

8.  Solve the problem and deliver the solution.

The next time you take on a project or have a problem to solve, think of giving this approach a try.  I believe that you will find it helpful.


. .  .  .    jim