Basic Principles and Techniques of Problem Solving

When I wrote this article, the information media were busy discussing the issue of the re-enactment of the PSBB in Jakarta due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases. On the one hand, there are many parties who support it, but not a few who reject it. Supporting parties say the total PSBB will be very useful in reducing the COVID-19 cases, on the other hand, those who refuse to say that the total PSBB in Jakarta will turn off the wheels of the economy and make Indonesia fall further into the brink of recession. Since the inaugural case was announced since March, the total growth of active cases of COVID-19 has not gone down – it has even gone up.

The case above is a real case of the need for someone to have complex problem solving abilities  , or complex problem solving  at the country or policy level. Conn and McLean (2018) reveal that  complex problem solving, critical thinking,  and  creativity  are the 3 most important skills to master in 2020 and until the decades after. When I teach an introductory course to technology entrepreneurship at the UI Industrial Engineering Department, I always emphasize these 3 things to students, and I give them a lot of training to be honed in problem solving, critical thinking, and also being a solution student.

Knowing What Is a Problem

Then, what is  problem solving? First, let’s understand what a problem is.

Do you know what the problem is?

I’m sure you’ve had a lot of problems in your life (and so have I). Of course we want all the problems in our lives to be resolved quickly. However, how can we solve the problem, if we don’t know what the problem is (not confused right, hehe)?

Collins Dictionary, defines a problem is a condition that is not as expected, causing difficulties in living life. Based on this definition, we know that the problem is that there is a  gap  between the “Reality” and the “Ideal” that we want to achieve.

As a student, you must have experienced there are subjects or subjects that you find it very difficult to follow. The lecturer has given a lower class limit, which is that you must get 60 on the exam. But after joining you score 40, so you don’t pass. There is a ‘gap’ between reality (you get 40) and the ideal score you can pass (at least 60), if this gap is not resolved you will not pass and have to repeat the course again in the following year.

Your attempt to get your score from 40 to over 60 (let’s say, 80) is a simple form of problem solving.

Principle of Problem Solving

Then, what are the principles – principles that you need to know in solving problems? Watanabe (2009) in his book 101 Problem Solving, mapped out 4 basic steps which are problem solving principles. The 4 basic steps are described in the following figure,

I use the model proposed by Watanabe (2009) because it is simple and also consistent with various other literature on problem solving. In essence, there are 4 things that we must do if we want to solve a problem:

1. Understand the situation or define the problem well (understand the situation )

Many people cannot solve problems because they cannot define the problem at hand. For example, “I couldn’t get an 80 in class because I didn’t have a discussion partner during the PSBB.”

Why is the problem definition less good? Yes, because the definition of the problem already contains a solution. If the problem is like that, then we just need to find a discussion partner. So, but if having a discussion partner our value immediately increases to 80? Not necessarily.

Then, how to better define the problem?

An example is like this, “I currently score 40 in subject X and I am aiming to get 80 on the next exam. I have to achieve this, because if I am under 60 I have to repeat the class again which will cost me Rp .xxxxx and xxxxx hours of time I have. ”

By using this problem definition, you become aware of how you are right now, what you want to achieve, and what impact would you have if you did not achieve it. Until here, understand? If you don’t understand, you can ask in the comment box :).

One more example: “I currently have one million in debt to X, and have to pay it back by September 25, 2020. If I don’t return it, I will be billed and people’s trust in me will be lost.”

So, if you still don’t understand, you can ask in the comment box.

2.  Identify the root cause (identify the root cause of the problem )

After defining the problem, then we look for what is the root cause of our problem. The easiest technique is to use the “5 Why” technique. This technique is to ask ourselves why we get bad grades, for example.

Why 1: Why did I get 40 on the math test? Because I have many wrong concepts in geometry
Why 2: Why are there so many misconceptions in geometry? Because I didn’t study it seriously.
Why 3: Why don’t I study geometry seriously? Because I don’t like the part
Why 4: Why don’t I like it? Because I don’t know what geometry has to do with my ideals
Why 5: Why don’t I know the relationship between geometry and my ideals? Because I am not looking for information related to that

It turns out that here the ‘root’ of the problem is not simply that we do not like parts of geometry, but also that we are not motivated to study them because we do not know what their benefits are. With this 5 why technique, we know what the root of the problem is and can formulate alternative solutions properly.


3.  Choosing and making an action plan  (Development of an effective action plan)

If it is from phase 2, then the next phase is to think creatively and critically about possible alternative solutions. As an example:

  • Find out what are the benefits of geometry in everyday life (Googling)
  • Watching films or movies is related to the importance of geometry
  • Learn geometry with the help of videos from the internet
  • Teach geometry to other people online
  • etc, etc.

Please write down as many alternative solutions as possible in this phase. Then choose which one is the most effective way to solve the problem using the least amount of resources (saving time and costs incurred).

4. Execute the total solution, fix it if it is not effective (Execute and modify, until it is solved)

If you are sure of a solution, the next step is total execution. But keep in mind that the solutions we implement need to be monitored and evaluated, are they effective? If not, then we look for alternative solutions that are more effective and efficient (this is called iteration).

What if the strategy is effective and we can judge it according to what is targeted? Then we raise a higher target, for example reaching a value of 100. This is called  improvement,  and it will continue to be like that continuously.

So, at this point you have learned about the principles of problem solving, as well as some of the techniques. Now we will discuss whether this principle can be used by policy makers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Problem-Solving and COVID-19

The science of problem solving is actually very simple. Why can’t the government or related agencies effectively solve the COVID-19 problem? Don’t they use this principle?

I am sure there are many experts in the government team of experts and they know much better than me about how to deal with COVID-19.

One thing that the public needs to understand is that problem solving for the state structure has a very high level of complexity. The level of complexity lies in the nature of the problem itself, namely  multiple problems, actors, interests, uncertainties. 

Multiple problems , where the problems are many and multi-dimensional. COVID-19 is not only about health, but also economic, social, transportation, and so on.
Multiple actors , namely the problems are owned by various parties, starting from the president, ministers, provincial government, health workers, and others.
Multiple interests , the problem is that these actors have different interests. There are those whose interests are saving the people, by reducing the mortality rate, there are those whose interests are gaining profits, etc.
Multiple uncertainties , that is, the uncertainty in the future will be of various kinds, starting from the emergence of a new virus, suddenly unruly people’s behavior, beyond the capacity of the government as a policy maker.
Multiple rationalities , that is  every actor involved has a different rationality in looking at the problem. Some are data-based because they like to read, some are whisper-based because they ask expert staff to read them out, and there are those based on intuition because they feel experienced handling these things in the past.

The five factors are each connected to one another, causing the megacomplex problem that is currently being faced by Indonesia. Honestly, sometimes I am often anxious about ignorant netizens who overstate this mega-complex regional or national level of decision-making, even though the way policy making in the country is not as simple as solving the problem which campus you want to go to and choose what major to continue your studies.

However, reflecting on the problem solving principle that I explained earlier, I came to think of one thing. Is it the chaotic handling of COVID-19 in Indonesia because we don’t have or don’t know what problems we face as a nation? Is there no clear definition of the problem (phase 1) that can be agreed upon by one nation for us to work together to solve the problem?

Can we have one or a  single problem statement,  which is a problem that we must solve together as a nation? So whatever our role in the country at this time, this single problem statement  represents all of our interests, so we just focus on solving the problem so that Indonesia can solve the handling of COVID-19 better.

If it doesn’t exist yet and doesn’t try to find it, then Indonesia, in its current state, hasn’t passed phase 1 of the problem solving stage and for me that’s terrible.

If anyone can formulate it, I am sure you will be of great service to the country because there is a big possibility that you can unite the nation.

Hopefully this article can pave the way a little so that we can become wiser decision makers.

by Abdullah Sam
I’m a teacher, researcher and writer. I write about study subjects to improve the learning of college and university students. I write top Quality study notes Mostly, Tech, Games, Education, And Solutions/Tips and Tricks. I am a person who helps students to acquire knowledge, competence or virtue.

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