The 5 steps of problem solving

The 5 Steps of Problem Solving

Haley comes into my office, sobbing inconsolably. I immediately grab a box of tissues and steer her to my table. She grabs one and puts her head down on the table.

“Haley, can you tell me what’s wrong?” I ask.

“I got on the bus, and then I remembered that my lunch was on the kitchen table but it was too late. I’m going to starve!!!” then she starts crying again.

“Haley, I can see that you’re upset. Let’s take a few deep breaths and then we can talk about ways we can solve this problem together.”

Problem solving is an important social skill to learn to manage not only small everyday issues but also bigger life concerns.

Kids face problems all the time, but sometimes they get stuck and don’t know how to figure out what to do to solve it. A kid could forget their lunch, just as Haley did, and not know what to do next to fix it.

Or a kid could get into an argument with another kid over a game at recess and be at a loss for what to do next. Kids need regular practice solving problems.

Practicing this skill now will help later when they are faced with bigger decisions as they move into adulthood.

Problem solving actually involves five main steps.

Identify the Problem

Kids need to be able to first identify the problem they are having. Sometimes kids will identify one thing as the problem, but it really turns out to be something else. Make sure you understand the situation and clarify the specific problem.

Generate Ideas

They need to be able to generate several ideas for solving an issue. Not all of them will work, but you’re not trying to pick out ones that will and won’t work during this step. Right now, it’s just about generating ideas.

Evaluate ideas

Here’s where you go through and figure out which ideas are ones to try and which ones to leave behind.

Decide on a solution and try it

Pick an idea for solving the problem and give it a try.

Did it work?

After you’ve tried to solve the problem, check in to see if it worked. If it did, awesome! If it didn’t, just go back and pick another solution that you thought of during the “Evaluate Ideas” step and see if that works.

As you are reading a book or watching a show with your children, stop and go through the problem solving steps a character might take.

Or, think of a few typical problems children might face (for example: arguing over which game to play, losing a library book, figuring out who is going to go first, etc). Write them on a piece of paper and put them in a hat. Pull them out one at a time then go through the problem solving steps.

A few minutes later, Haley and I have a plan.

“So you’re going to call my mom and see if she can bring it in, right? And if she can’t, then the cafeteria will give me a lunch.” Haley looks reassured.

“Yes, those are our plans. I’m going to call your mom right now. I’ll check in with you in a few minutes and let you know, alright? Head to class and start unpacking your backpack. Have a good day!”

The 5 Steps of Problem Solving


Problem solving is a critical skill for success in business—in fact it’s often what you are hired and paid to do. This article explains the five problem solving steps and provides strategies on how to execute each one.

Defining Problem Solving

Before we talk about the stages of problem solving, it’s important to have a definition of what it is. Let’s look at the two roots of problem solving — problems and solutions.

Problem – a state of desire for reaching a definite goal from a present condition [1]
– the management of a problem in a way that successfully meets the goals set for treating it [2]

[1] Problem solving on Wikipedia
[2] Introduction to Problem Solving by Robert Harris

One important call-out is the importance of having a goal. As defined above, the solution may not completely solve problem, but it does meet the goals you establish for treating it–you may not be able to completely resolve the problem (end world hunger), but you can have a goal to help it (reduce the number of starving children by 10%).

The Five Steps of Problem Solving

With that understanding of problem solving, let’s talk about the steps that can get you there. The five problem solving steps are shown in the chart below:

The 5 Steps of Problem Solving

5 Step Problem Solving Approach

The 5 Step problem solving approach assists in the identification and elimination of root causes to problems, but what is a problem?

A problem is a deviation from the standard.

See also:  How to write a thank-you note

It is something that wasn’t expected and could be something like, poor on time delivery, poor quality, taking too long in the process, poor information flow, re-entering data in a spreadsheet, correcting a mistake, high internal scrap.

It can be absolutely anything that creates an output that is not to plan.

  • Again, the art of being competitive in business is how quickly you can use problem solving strategies as an embedded culture, to find problems at source and eliminate them.
  • An alternative to PDCA, the 5 step approach is a simpler alternative, which may help a team quickly understand and try new ideas to resolve the problem at hand.
  • One way of solving problems is this five step method:

The 5 Steps of Problem Solving

1.What is the problem?

The first stage of the 5 step problem solving model – Define exactly what the problem is.

Be clear and specific as to what exactly the problem is, when it happens, how often, what effect is it, what is the deviation from standard? See Problem statement for more information.

2. What is my plan?

Think of at least 2 or 3 possible methods that you might use to identify what went wrong. In other words, where and what do you need to investigate to help determine the cause. A strategy is a way or method or process for understanding the root causes.

3. What might happen if?

Examine your list of possible strategies from section 2, and choose the one that seems to fit best for the problem at hand.

4. Try it out!

Work the strategy, which you chose in step 3 and determine whether your team found the cause. If you did, then move onto the next step.

5. Measure

Measure the process outputs, and if the problem has gone, you are done!

If your best strategy doesn’t work, go back to your list of possible strategies in Step Two and choose another. Keep passing through the steps until your measurements tell you the problem has gone.

Return from 5 step problem solving to Problem Solving Home Page

5-Step Problem Solving for Young Children

Even young children can be taught to solve their problems peacefully with these 5 steps: 

The 5 Steps of Problem Solving

Step One: How do you feel? Calm down. – Often when we encounter a problem, we feel frustrated or angry. Before we can solve our problem, we need to know how we are feeling and calm down. There are different ways to calm down; we could take a break, take three deep breaths, use “milkshake breathing”.

Step Two: What is the Problem? – We need to know what the problem is before we can solve it. Why do you feel angry or upset? Remember this problem belongs to you, not other people.

Step Three: Come up with Solutions – It is helpful to think of as many different solutions to the problem as possible. Not every solution will work. A solution might work one time but not another time. The more problems you solve, the easier it is to think of solutions.

Step Four: What would happen? – Think about what would happen if you chose each of the solutions you came up with. Is the solution safe? A safe solution means no one will be hurt or upset. Is the solution fair? How will everyone feel?

Step Five: Try the Solution – Choose a solution. Try your solution. Did it solve the problem? If the solution does not solve the problem, you can try one of the other solutions you came up with.

Lesson Plan: Solving Problems Peacefully

Background & Learning Outcomes:

This activity  is written for children ages 4-6 for a child care setting, preschool, kindergarten or in the home. It can be adapted, however for other ages. By teaching children basic problem solving steps and providing opportunities for them to practice this skill, children can become competent problem solvers.


  • Large paper and marker for writing solution ideas

Teaching and Learning Activities:

  1. Introduce the topic of “problems.” Ask children to share problems they have had recently. You can add your own examples of problems you have had or problems you have observed in the classroom.

  2. Explain to the children that they can become expert problem solvers by using five problem solving steps.

  3. Introduce and briefly explain each of the problem-solving steps.

  4. Pick an example of a problem the children shared. Work through the problem with the children using the five problem solving steps.

Step 1: How do you feel? Calm down.

5 Problem Solving Steps – Process & Strategies for Success

Modern humans are the greatest problem solvers the world has ever seen.

While our predecessors developed primitive tools to better live in their environments, humans are the first to develop the mental acuity necessary to transform their living space.

See also:  Are mass and weight the same thing?

As a consequence, we thrive around the world, altering hostile, barren desert lands and freezing climates into hospitable habitats with growing populations.

Of course, problem-solving abilities vary considerably from one individual to another – some of us excel in resolving overarching dilemmas, while others are more adept at making basic day-to-day decisions. Researchers at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan believe that difficulty solving problems tends to stem from the following two issues:

  1. Inaccuracy in Reading. Incorrect interpretation of a problem can stem from perceiving it without concentrating on its meaning. It can also result from reading unfamiliar words, overlooking important facts, and starting to address it prematurely. Simply stated, many people have difficulty framing a problem accurately at first and consequently develop inadequate or incorrect solutions.
  2. Inaccuracy in Thinking. Ancients Greeks called the ability to properly reason “logic.” Today, we sometimes refer to this ability as “pragmatism” – a system of thinking to determine meaning, truth, or value. Poor decisions result from a lack of clarity so that irrelevant information is considered in the problem-solving process. We sometimes pursue solutions that do not meet our intended goals, or we fail to break complex problems into understandable parts when time constraints force us into premature decisions.

Each of us makes decisions every day that affect our happiness, careers, and satisfaction with life. By learning and practicing the skills of proven problem solvers – and following the necessary steps – you can boost your self-esteem, reduce interpersonal conflicts, and lessen overall stress.

1. Define a Problem

Fully understanding a problem before developing possible solutions is essential.

Some problems appear simple – deciding what to eat for breakfast, what to wear to work, whether to take mass transit or to drive – and their solutions rarely have any real impact on our lives.

Other problems are incredibly complex and have long-term consequences: choice of careers, whom we choose to marry, or whether to pursue an advanced educational degree.

Problems are further complicated due to emotions, and whether we perceive the implementation of a solution to be painful or pleasurable. The fact that many of our decisions have consequences far into the future leads to procrastination and further complexity.

The way we think about or define a problem can result in missed opportunities, inadequate or impermanent solutions, unnecessary costs, wasted time, and continued frustration and stress. An instance of this is when we simplify problems by seeking single, either-or, or short-term solutions, while neglecting long-term consequences.

For example, a rushed parent needing to serve dinner might run to the store for that night’s meal, and might repeat that behavior multiple times per week. In seeking the short-term solution (buy tonight’s dinner) and neglecting the longer term solution (make one large, well-planned grocery trip in advance), he or she wastes time, gas, and effort and deals with repeated frustration.

There is usually a range of decisions and actions we can take to resolve a problem, each of which has different short- and long-term effects that need to be considered.

 Expanding the definition of a problem by providing more details can stimulate critical thinking and result in multiple, often innovative solutions.

The better problem solvers know that asking more questions before trying to find a solution generally brings better results.

The Importance of an Accurate Description

Charles Kettering, head of General Motors research division from 1920 to 1947, claimed, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.

” A 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review concurred, saying, “Well-defined problems lead to breakthrough solutions.

” The authors believed that the majority of companies and individuals aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve and articulating why the solution is important.

For example, the cleanup of the Alaskan coast following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill cost tremendously more than was expected and took more than 20 years to complete, primarily due to a failure to consider that oil in subarctic waters becomes syrupy. The fluid’s low viscosity made pumping it to onshore collection stations extremely difficult.

Once the problem was expanded from “oil cleanup” to include “materials viscosity,” a chemist in the cement industry proposed a solution that would vibrate the frozen oil in the barges as it was pumped, keeping it fluid. As a consequence, cleanup was sped up with a potential savings of millions of dollars.

Using the Kipling Method to Define Problems

The first step in solving any problem is a clear, concise statement – what advocates call a “problem statement.” The Kipling Method, named after Rudyard Kipling’s 1902 poem in his book “Just So Stories,” is one of the more popular systems for defining a problem. Sometimes called the “Five Ws and One H” system, journalists often use it to communicate the facts of a situation.

See also:  When does your intelligence peak?

The poem highlights the six components necessary to properly frame a problem:

  • What is the problem?
  • Why is fixing the problem important?
  • When did the problem arise? When does it need to be solved?
  • How did the problem happen?
  • Where is the problem occurring?
  • Who does the problem affect?

A problem statement should be as clear and complete as possible. For example, a destitute student considering whether to attend college might conclude that “I cannot go to college this coming semester.” This decision reflects a faulty problem statement about a lack of funds, rather than a framework to develop solutions that can allow for attendance.

A better problem statement might be: “I (who) lack the funds to pay the coming semester’s tuition and fees (what) at UCLA (where) by September 1st (when). I was laid off from my summer job and cannot save as much as I had hoped (how).

As a result, my degree and the start of my career will be delayed at least six months (why).

” An expanded problem statement might lead to other solutions such as seeking scholarships, borrowing funds, attending a different college for lower tuition, working part-time while attending school, reducing other expenditures to save, or a combination of all.

2. Develop Alternative Solutions

A common barrier to successful problem solving is our reliance on previous experiences, especially those that appear similar to our current situation. According to psychologist G. Stanley Hall, humans are largely creatures of habit, and our activities and decisions are often automatic reflexes based upon our personal biases, stereotypes, and history.

Many scientists believe that habit is the natural consequence of evolution, a trade-off between the brain’s enormous requirement of energy – brains account for less than 2% of a human’s body weight, but consume up to 20% of our calorific intake – and survival. Running from the growl of an unseen lion undoubtedly saved more of our ancestors than waiting to confirm its presence.

Unfortunately, this tendency to apply the same experience to every problem can lead to poor decisions. As American psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “If you only have a hammer, you see every problem as a nail.”

Except for math or fact-based questions, few problems have a single solution. The better problem solvers employ a variety of strategies to develop multiple solutions before coming to a decision. Since the optimum solution is usually discovered by comparing alternative results, theorizing multiple choices and their outcomes is advantageous.

Techniques to Develop Multiple Solutions to a Single Problem

During this stage, the goal is to generate as many potential solutions as possible without considering whether they are realistic, practical, or effective. Useful techniques to break old habits of thinking include the following:

  • Analogies. Consider similar problems from your past and adapt their solutions to the current situation. For example, a company seeking to market a new software product might consider common industry marketing tactics – celebrity endorsements, low introductory prices, or national advertising – to roll out the product.
  • Brainstorming

5 Steps (And 4 Techniques) for Effective Problem Solving

Published on March 31, 2020

Problem solving is the process of reviewing every element of an issue so you can get to a solution or fix it.

Problem solving is a series of steps that you work through, covering multiple aspects of a problem until you can find a solution. Whether that’s in a group collaboratively or independently, the process remains the same, but the approach and the steps can differ.

To find a problem solving approach that works for you, your team, or your company, you have to take into consideration the environment you’re in and personalities around you.

Knowing the characters in the room will help you decide on the best approach to try and ultimately get to the best solution.

No matter what the problem is, to solve it, you nearly always have to follow these steps. Missing any of these steps can cause the problem to either resurface or the solution to not be implemented correctly.

Once you know these steps, you can then get creative with the approach you take to find the solutions you need.

1. Define the Problem

You must define the problem before you start, whether you’re solving it independently or as a group. If you don’t have a single view of what the problem is, you could be fixing something that doesn’t need fixing, or you’ll fix the wrong problem.

Spend time elaborating on the problem, write it down, and discuss so you’re clear on why the problem is occurring and who it is impacting.

2. Ideate

Once you have clarity on the problem, you then need to start thinking about every possible solution. This is where you go big and broad as you want to come up with as many potential solutions as possible.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.