Not too long ago my car began
to overheat. I checked the radiator fluid level and, sure enough, it
was low. Since I am not very mechanically minded, I called Bill, my
mechanic, to see what I ought to do. Fortunately I have a mechanic who
does me right. He told me to wait until the engine cooled down, open
the radiator cap, and look to see if the radiator was full. So, the
next morning I checked it and, sure enough, it was low. I added about a
quart of coolant then took it down to have it checked out.

When Bill
finally looked at it, nothing seemed to be wrong. The fan was running,
it had fluid, the light had not come on to indicate that it was
overheating and it didn't seem to be leaking anywhere. So, he poked
around a little more and noticed that the air being blown by the fan
was not hot. If the water had been running through the hot engine, the
air being sucked away from the radiator should have been hot. This told
him that water was not circulating in the radiator and that there was a
blockage somewhere.

Based on
that information, there were two possibilities. One was that there was
a blockage in the radiator itself. The other possibility was that the
thermostat was not opening up to let water into the radiator. So, he
began to dig in. He opened up the place where the thermostat was
located and, sure enough, it was closed down. As he grabbed and pulled
it out with a pair of pliers, the thing suddenly popped open for him.
This confirmed that the thermostat was, indeed, the problem. He went
and grabbed a new one off of the shelf, put it in the car and I have
not had a problem with it since.

As I
thought about this whole problem solving process that my mechanic went
through, I thought how cool it was that he was able to work through a
series of steps and, one by one, eliminate possibilities until he
located the actual problem. Problem solving at it's finest.

every day, every one of us knock our heads up against some kind of
problem. Sometimes they are routine - things that we run into
frequently. Since these are so common, we usually recognize them
immediately and are able to solve them right away. But there are other
problems that are not so obvious, like the issue with my car's
thermostat. When they are not obvious, there is sometimes a tendency to
just let them rock on until they become so big that real damage is
done. However, as professionals who encounter problems as a regular
part of daily life, that is not acceptable.

It is
necessary to have a plan of diagnosis and attack to keep things running
smoothly. Consider the process below as a way of getting at problems
before they get out of hand.


The Five Step Problems Solving Method

Step 1 - Learn All You Can

The first
step for great diagnosis and problem solving actually takes place
before the problem ever occurs. This step is to get yourself educated.
Why do we have problems in the first place? It is because something
comes up that is not supposed to happen. If we know ahead of time what
those things could be, we can more easily deal with them when they come.

experience is a great teacher. A problem comes up, you struggle through
it, and the next time it comes you know what to do. But why not be
proactive? You have resources available where you can learn the basics
based on the bad experiences of other people. Join organizations where
you can pick the brains of other others who do the same work you do.
There are also many great books to read, classes to take and
certifications to study receive. All of these give you knowledge that
will help you when the problems begin to hit.

Step 2 - Pay Attention

problems don't start out full grown. When I was a child I used to play
in a drainage ditch near my house. One of my favorite things to do was
to build a dam, then watch the water build up until it overflowed.
After it broke I loved to watch the great wall of water rush downstream.

When the
water got to the top of the dam, it didn't just collapse the whole
thing immediately. First it found the lowest point and began to trickle
over just a little bit at that point. That trickle would then erode the
dirt making the hole larger and larger until the whole thing suddenly
crashed in. When the first trickle happened, I could easily pile more
mud on that spot and save the dam. After the whole thing began crashing
in, though, it was too late.

attention to everything going on. Check your systems ahead of time.
Keep on top of the other people who have responsibilities. If something
rears its head that could become a problem, jump on it quickly.

Step 3 - Make a List

When a
problem does emerge, take the time to sit down and figure it out.
Certainly there are times when you have to just jump in and "put a
finger in the dike." But if you are in charge, you are the strategic
planner. Grab someone else who can jump on the immediate problem and
you sit down and make sure that you have all of the implications
covered. What you don't want is a ripple down effect. Take the time to
actually write down the issues related to the cause and solution to the
problem. This will become your way of staying focused and objective.

Step 4 - Organize Your Data

If the
problem is a big one, there will likely be several things on your list
that need to be done in order to solve the problem. Organize the data.
Put your thoughts in logical order for dealing with the issues. Again,
this may take you a little bit of time when you feel pressured to put
out fires, but get other people to be the firefighters. You need to be
the fire chief!

Step 5 - Solve the Problem

Once you
have your prioritized list, systematically go through each step to take
care of the problem. This way you will not just be putting out brush
fires, but will be dealing with the issues that caused them to happen
in the first place.

Keeping Your Engine Cool

There are
so many things that can happen in the planning and implementation of
your life's activities. Those who have great problem solving skills
will take the problems in stride. Those who do not will end up sick and
with constant disasters. The skills are not that hard to acquire, but
it does take a systematic and intentional effort to make it happen.

A car
engine with the stopped up thermostat will soon break down. A person
with stopped up problem solving skills will too. Learn the skills,
solve the problems. Have a great career.

Dr. Freddy Davis is the owner
of TSM Enterprises and conducts conferences, seminars and
organizational training for executives, managers and sales
professionals. He is the author of the book Supercharged! as well as the "Nutshell" Series of books for strengthening business. Sign up, free, for Freddy's twice-monthly e-letter, Nutshell Notes, at You can contact Freddy directly at 888-883-0656 or by e-mail at