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The Problem Solving Steps all Engineers Should Know

Imagine walking into a room, everyone is clamoring for answers and after a few moments you know exactly what everyone should do to fix the problem.

You deal with problems on a daily basis as an Engineer but sometimes you run into the situation where you solve the wrong problem, or senior engineers get frustrated with how long it's taking to complete a task - perhaps they gave you some vague problem statement and when you asked for some direction it was still high level because it should be "obvious".

I think where people get caught is the Senior engineers giving out tasks aren't necessarily looking to walk you through a solution, they want a problem to go away, they want to spend as close to zero brain cells on the problem (at this point in time). So your job is to make it go away and not to use their brain cycles.

But this is counter intuitive, if I don't know where to start or I take too long then that will also be frustrating since the problem will still be there.

Correct. So you are caught in between a rock and a hard place. But it's not the worst and we can certainly equip ourselves with the skills we need to handle these situations.

What's the situation?

Problem Solving and reducing our "mean-time to solve". There's a spectrum of problems one can consider and if you realize this you can see that more complex problems do require more time to solve - there's an "expected" time to solve. So you want to perform in such a way that you are below this line as much as is practicable.

I've worked in Engineering for over a decade now and I can tell you that for sure there are specific tricks to solving particular problems specific to the industry, company, field, technology, etc. You gain these by purely time. Working on problems and solutions in that area. This is why experience is king - but it is also overrated sometimes.

Someone with 5 years more experience may not be very good and if you only looked at the number of years you would be none the wiser.

So how can we overcome this hurdle and forget the number of years we've worked and just perform better?

Here I created simple steps to follow that looks at a more birds-eye view but is so practical you can apply it to any situation.

But this isn't some "one-size fits all" methodology, nor is it "how do I calculate the potential energy in this craft", "how do you enable this features in this software". Don't get it twisted.

But it does help formalize your approach, use the right mindset and ask the right questions at the various stages of problem solving.

What's wrong with Steps to Problem Solving lists out there? They are mostly correct, but the primary issue is they are so generic and have little practicality. They lay out steps around identification of the problem, analysis, breaking it down to small bits, evaluating. But more often than not they spend half the time talking about implementation, working out the kinks, timing, etc.

This presents 2 problems:

  1. It is super slow

  2. It is solution focused

I'm not saying you shouldn't plan out your solutions and have implementation plans, timings, schedules, documentation - you need these (at the solution stage). But when you plan out how you are going to try to fix something and spend all this time pondering - you could have simply tried and moved on.

You either fixed it or you got more data.

You iterate faster through your questions, quick testing of the obvious things, getting eyes on the situation in the correct way, checking your fundamentals and proceeding from there. (These are still in the first three steps by the way).

The rest of the steps are still focused on going deeper into the rabbit hole to solve your problems. This is when you are stuck, for hours, days, weeks!

So what are the steps?

Here's direct extract of the index:

  1. The Question

  2. The Obvious

  3. Eyes

  4. Check Yourself

  5. Doctor G

  6. The RTFM Protocol

  7. Strip

  8. What about the Environment?

  9. Phone-A-Friend

  10. Pray

  11. The Secret Step

The book goes on to explain each of these steps and provide a checklist style summary at the end of each. You can practically use this as a framework to approach problems, particularly tricky ones so that you can reduce the average amount of time you spend fixing things. There's real examples from easy to difficult ones covered so you gain context on how to fix.

I really wanted to help as many people as I can with this so I actually made the book completely free. You can get online access and read the whole thing from my website here.

It will require you create an account but other than that you are good.

At the time of this writing only the first 2 chapters are available, but you are getting early access as the book isn't set to release until the 4th Quarter of this year! (In time for Christmas).

You can register to get notified when the release is coming out so you can be first in line to get your own copy.

What's the advantage of problem solving this way?

So if you remember to the opening of this article we did cover some of the pain points and frustrations that can happen in an engineering career. So think of it this way, if you can consistently solve problems and make things go away, or better yet, things seem to get fixed faster when you are around - then you'll be wanted around.

This tends to have a compounding effect where you help others solve their problems simply by understanding this method and asking the right questions to get them to their own answer, and now people want you on bigger projects.

You do this and gain more responsibility and then now you have the foundation for increasing your pay, your role and your impact. (There's challenges here of course but I will have courses and free content to address these). You can become one of the "go to" engineers in your company.

Every Engineer should be aware of these problem solving steps.

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