Daily Archives: July 9, 2006

Problem Solving Series IV: Finding a Solution

This is the fourth post in a series of posts designed to introduce you to problem solving strategies that you can use to attack your sourcing and supply chain problems. Last Sunday we discussed six strategies that you could use to help you find the root cause of a problem, which is the first, and most important, step in constructing a model. Today we are going to discuss three methodologies for finding a solution, and some associated strategies that you can use to apply the methodologies.

The first methodology you can use is to start with a potential solution or solution to a related problem that you might be able to modify to your current situation. The following strategies can help you out here:

( 1 ) Apply and Adjust

Apply the related solution, look for issues, and attempt to adjust the related solution to make it work. If you are currently trying to lower spend on a commodity, and you already lowered spend on other commodities in the same category, try to apply the same techniques that you already used.

( 2 ) Work backwards

Work backwards from your goal until you have a reduced problem that the starting solution applies to. Then try to extend the starting solution forward. This also works if you don’t have a starting solution, as it can help you identify one. If you are trying to design a transportation network, start with the receiving points and work back to the original shipping points.

The second methodology you can use is to make use of what psychologists like to call “external aids”, or methodologies that go beyond simply applying the basic process in conjunction with your internal knowledge. Some examples, or strategies, are as follows:

( 1 ) Ask an Expert

If you know someone you can ask who knows more then you about the problem and potential solutions, ask. They might be able to provide you with a solution or at least point you in the right direction quickly. Generally speaking, the best learn from the best.

( 2 ) Research the archives

Although this does include looking in books and magazines, it also includes researching the vast amount of information available on the internet. If someone already solved the problem why do it again?

( 3 ) Try Applied Theory

Do not be afraid to test out an academic theory if you have a hard or unique problem, even if it is new. For example, general economic principles and theories are widely applicable and might help shed some insight. Sourcing and supply management texts might hold the answers, as might the leading blogs, such as Spend Matters, e-Sourcing Forum, and Procurement Central.

( 4 ) Try the Scientific Method

Especially if the problem is technical, engineering, or R&D oriented. Simply put, this means systematically collecting data to test a hypothesis, applying certain types of research design and analysis methods to the data, and being skeptical about the results. This is especially true if you are trying to determine the best source of supply of components for a new prototype, especially since 80% of the total costs can be locked in during the design phase.

( 5 ) Try Mathematics

Mathematics is a universal language, and the foundation of our physical sciences. Sometimes an appropriate mathematical representation makes a problem trivial. Considering that just about every decision support and optimization tool makes use of mathematics, it’s always a good starting point.

The third methodology you can use is to do it the old fashioned way and use logic and brain power to find the answer. Basic strategies you can use here are:

( 1 ) Reason by analogy

Often the actual solutions to similar problems as well as the methodologies used can help you with your current problem. Let’s say you are trying to redesign your purchase order process. If you recently redesigned an invoicing process, there might be strong similarities.

( 2 ) Use deductive reasoning

Deductive reasoning involves the progression from a general rule to an application in a specific instance. For example, collaboration often improves processes and lower costs. This general rule can be applied to each relationship you have.

( 3 ) Use inductive reasoning

Inductive reasoning involves drawing on specific instances to form a general rule. If switching negotiation strategies on other commodities on the category reduced cost, then maybe new negotiation strategies are the right solution here as well.

( 4 ) Question assumptions

We make assumptions all the time, many of which are based on untested theories. If we have problems finding a solution, we should question the validity of those assumptions as we could be looking in the wrong place.

That concludes our introduction to solution finding strategies. Next Sunday we will discuss some generic methodologies you can use to evaluate a potential solution and determine whether or not it is acceptable or if you should continue looking for a better solution.