Problem Solving, Its Techniques and Ergonomics

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Problem Solving, Techniques and Ergonomics

Problem Solving & Its Techniques

Problem solving is also a lateral thinking technique that can be defined as any goal-directed sequence of cognitive operations. Problem solving starts off with an initial state which is the given situation. A problem can occur when the given initial state deviates from an ideal state. To reach to the ideal state, one needs to work towards finding a solution that may be equal or close to the ideal state. When one has reached or found a solution then one has reached the goal state. On the way from the initial state to the goal state, one passes through a number of intermediate problem states. For example, you have just brought a pizza home from a pizza place and its beginning to cool. The initial state is the warm pizza that is cooling off. The ideal state would be when you can eat the pizza at a desired temperature and the goal state will be to ensure that the pizza continues to stay warm even after any hour. Given another initial state when a friend visits your place and you wish to serve him/her warm pizza which is the ideal state. However, the microwave/oven is not working and you cannot serve it warm enough. The inoperative microwave/oven is the problem state that makes the initial state deviate from the ideal state. The deviation would make you come up with alternatives (like proper storage or warm it up on stove) that allows you to serve warm pizza to your friend, which thus becomes your goal.

There are different approaches to problem-solving some of which are discussed in the lateral thinking chapter. The structured approaches considered in organisations include – Kepner –Tregor (K.T.) method, Delphi and Nominal Group techniques that focused on problem identification and decision making for problem-solving.

Kepner-Tregor (K.T.) method

The Kepner-Tregoe (K.T.) method was devised by Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe and is based on knowing the surroundings of an individual or business and knowing the means of dealing with situations likely to occur. The K.T. method is a problem identification method wherein Kepner and Tregoe frequently referred to ‘concerns’, which they defined it as any situation that requires action and for which an individual or organisation has full or partial responsibility. Following are four steps considered for problem-identifcation through the K.T. method:

  • Recognising concerns:

The first step to solving a problem is making a list of situations that are not ideal or could affect someone’s well-being or possible opportunities. The purpose of this activity is to compare the progress with existing activities which were previously planned and in turn identify any additional concerns to the list. Also, this activity also allows one to look for ways of reviewing unforeseen problems and opportunities for the future.

  • Separating concerns into manageable components

The concerns should be supported with some evidence to be able to be identified as a concern. Accordingly, there could be some concerns that could be interlinked with each other. All relevant concerns could be placed in separate groups and checked whether they would be manageable and feasible in existing circumstances.

  • Setting priorities

The third step involves tackling with the concerns depending upon the seriousness (how it affects all stakeholders), urgency (time) and an estimate of likely growth. This activity can be done by asking questions such as “What will be the consequences if we postpone consideration of a concern?”, “Will a problem get worse if we do not deal with it for a while?”. Based on these factors and supporting questions, the concerns will be prioritised

  • Planning how to resolve concerns

Having determined and assigned priorities to the concerns, the final step is to decide on how to tackle the issues and what depth of treatment is appropriate. The depth of the treatment will again depend on when the decision needs to made and what options are available at present or at the later stage. The planning process would also decide on whether certain people (internal or external) should be called together for decision-making.

Delphi Method

The theoretical assumptions and methodical procedures of Delphi method originated in 1950s and the 1960s at the RAND Corporation (in California, United States). Delphi method is a group communication exercise comprising of an expert panel of say 10 – 15 members distributed geographically and cannot meet in person. The expert panel comprises of members with certain prerequisites such as:

  • Knowledge and practical experience with issues under investigation
  • Capacity and willingness to contribute and explore a particular problem
  • Assurance for dedicating sufficient time to the Delphi exercise
  • Skill in written communication and in expressing priorities through voting procedures
  • Academic qualifications and credentials are no necessarily a prerequisite

The expert panel has to answer a series of questionnaires that are designed to elicit and develop individual responses to the problems posed and to enable the experts to refine their views as the group’s work progresses in accordance with the assigned task. The first set of questionnaires poses the problems in broad terms and invites answers and comments to construct the second set of questionnaires. The second set presents the results of the first set and gives the panel an opportunity to re-evaluate their original answers in the light of comprehensive feedback on the responses of the whole group. Through the second set of questionnaires the experts’ feedback are reviewed by identifying four outcomes – Areas of agreement; Areas of disagreement; Areas needing clarification and; Understanding each other’s position and moving towards an accurate judgement concerning the relative importance of issues.

Delphi methods can be broadly used for coordination, bargaining or negotiations within an organisation. These methods are predominantly used for decision-making in social policy and public health. The Delphi method is useful when there is great disagreement on an issue that requires subjective judgements to resolve. Though the preferred size of panel is 10 -15, large number of people can be involved during the decision-making process. The process however is very time consuming (more than a month for a typical decision) and requires specialised skills in developing and analysing surveys

Nominal Group Technique (NGT)

Like Delphi method, Nominal Group Technique (NGT) consists of decision-making by a group of panellists involved in independent idea generation, structured feedback and independent mathematical judgement. The difference between NGT and Delphi method is that the group of members are not select group as per certain criteria but are nominal (or ordinary) collection of people. NGT broadly refers to processes which bring experts together and combines non-verbal and verbal stages within a structured communication procedure. The stages in NGT process can be summarised as follows:

  • Silent generation of ideas in writing after the leader states the problem to the group
  • Round-robin (circular or common pamphlet) feedback from group members to record each idea briefly on a flip chart
  • Discussion of each recorded idea for clarification and evaluation
  • Individual voting on priority ideas with the group decision being mathematically derived through rank-ordering or rating
  • Discussion of the preliminary vote
  • Final vote and outcome of the meeting

NGT is relatively quick and discourages pressure to conform and does not require the group members to know each other before the decision-making process. The process however, requires a trained facilitator to conduct the survey and it can address only one narrowly defined problem at a time


The term ergonomics comes from two Greek words “Ergon” which means work and “nomos” which means laws. Accordingly, ergonomics can be defined as the study of efficiencies in working environment or a scientific discipline concerned with understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance. The definition of ergonomics highlights the following features:

  • It is a science of work
  • It is an attempt to make work comfortable and efficient
  • It is useful as it saves time by slimming down the steps involved in a task or simplifying tasks. For example, kitchen appliances like mixers/grinders
  • It can increase your body mechanics. For example, working and walking around the plant in comfortable shoes.

Though there are several benefits of ergonomics, one of the major disadvantages of ergonomics is that it costs money to develop and design it. For example: the ergonomically designed computer keyboards. It may also increase wastes and harm the environment. For example: dishwashers require lot of water, plastic bags used in garbage bins, etc.