Solving Problems

A decade ago, I worked at General Electric. For the unfamiliar among you, GE is a huge company (300k+ employees) that operated in a myriad of fields from banking to media, to the field I was involved in: Energy.

I spent 2 of my 5 years at GE working as a Six Sigma Black Belt, two years that changed my life. That's because during that time, I picked up a problem solving technique that completely changed everything I knew about the topic. Problem solving is one of those things you don't really think about much. When someone faces a problem, they tend to search for a solution to that specific issue. Rarely, if ever, do we step back to consider the problem solving approach in the abstract i.e. whether the approach we follow to solve problems is working, and whether it requires tweaking to achieve better results.

Now, I came across this solution almost by accident. We'd been learning, through the rote, statistics-laden Black-belt training courses that the company had compelled us to attend, about the Six Sigma methodology for process improvement (surprisingly, the course content was even more demotivating than the title). I was having such a difficult time grasping any of the material in the course that I had no choice but to leave the class, and spend the few remaining hours in the day searching for alternate explanations that I could actually *get*. After many such attempts, I was able to string together a series of notes into a cohesive whole that made complete sense -- and that I've since applied hundreds of times.

The approach is simple, and requires absolutely no mathematics or statistics to follow. It is a 5 step plan, based on the "DMAIC" approach described in Six Sigma.

The 5 steps are:
- Define
- Measure
- Analyze
- Improve
- Control

Combined, these steps provide a solid mental model for approaching practically any problem you could face. I'll spend the next few posts providing lucid examples for scenarios of increasing complexity, each time using these same 5 steps to better understand and then solve these problems. The problems I use will have very little in common, save for being general everyday problems that any of us may face.