Problem Solving: Definition, terminology, and patterns

Problem Solving:
Definition, terminology, and patterns
by Hidetoshi Shibata  
Copy rights © H. Shibata all reserved, 1997, 1998  Send me E-mail !

Problem Solving Terminology

Systems Thinking

Problem Solving is very important but problem solvers often misunderstand it. This report proposes the definition of problems, terminology for Problem Solving and useful Problem Solving patterns.

We should define what is the problem as the first step of Problem Solving. Yet problem solvers often forget this first step.

Further, we should recognize common terminology such as Purpose, Situation, Problem, Cause, Solvable Cause, Issue, and Solution. Even Consultants, who should be professional problem solvers, are often confused with the terminology of Problem Solving. For example, some consultants may think of issues as problems, or some of them think of problems as causes. But issues must be the proposal to solve problems and problems should be negative expressions while issues should be a positive expression. Some consultants do not mind this type of minute terminology, but clear terminology is helpful to increase the efficiency of Problem Solving. Third, there are several useful thinking patterns such as strategic thinking, emotional thinking, realistic thinking, empirical thinking and so on. The thinking pattern means how we think. So far, I recognized fourteen thinking patterns. If we choose an appropriate pattern at each step in Problem Solving, we can improve the efficiency of Problem Solving.

This report will explain the above three points such as the definition of problems, the terminology of Problem Solving, and useful thinking patterns.

Definition of problem

A problem is decided by purposes. If someone wants money and when he or she has little money, he or she has a problem. But if someone does not want money, little money is not a problem.

For example, manufacturing managers are usually evaluated with line-operation rate, which is shown as a percentage of operated hours to potential total operation hours. Therefore manufacturing managers sometimes operate lines without orders from their sales division. This operation may produce more than demand and make excessive inventories. The excessive inventories may be a problem for general managers. But for the manufacturing managers, the excessive inventories may not be a problem.

If a purpose is different between managers, they see the identical situation in different ways. One may see a problem but the others may not see the problem. Therefore, in order to identify a problem, problem solvers such as consultants must clarify the differences of purposes. But oftentimes, problem solvers frequently forget to clarify the differences of purposes and incur confusion among their problem solving projects. Therefore problem solvers should start their problem solving projects from the definition of purposes and problems

Terminology of Problem Solving

We should know the basic terminology for Problem Solving. This report proposes seven terms such as Purpose, Situation, Problem, Cause, Solvable Cause, Issue, and Solution.


Purpose is what we want to do or what we want to be. Purpose is an easy term to understand. But problem solvers frequently forget to confirm Purpose, at the first step of Problem Solving. Without clear purposes, we can not think about problems.


Situation is just what a circumstance is. Situation is neither good nor bad. We should recognize situations objectively as much as we can. Usually almost all situations are not problems. But some problem solvers think of all situations as problems. Before we recognize a problem, we should capture situations clearly without recognizing them as problems or non-problems. Without recognizing situations objectively, Problem Solving is likely to be narrow sighted, because problem solvers recognize problems with their prejudice.


Problem is some portions of a situation, which cannot realize purposes. Since problem solvers often neglect the differences of purposes, they cannot capture the true problems. If the purpose is different, the identical situation may be a problem or may not be a problem.


Cause is what brings about a problem. Some problem solvers do not distinguish causes from problems. But since problems are some portions of a situation, problems are more general than causes are. In other words causes are more specific facts, which bring about problems. Without distinguishing causes from problems, Problem Solving can not be specific. Finding specific facts which causes problems is the essential step in Problem Solving.

Solvable Cause

Solvable cause is some portions of causes. When we solve a problem, we should focus on solvable causes. Finding solvable causes is another essential step in Problem Solving. But problem solvers frequently do not extract solvable causes among causes. If we try to solve unsolvable causes, we waste time. Extracting solvable causes is a useful step to make Problem Solving efficient.


Issue is the opposite expression of a problem. If a problem is that we do not have money, the issue is that we get money. Some problem splvers do not know what Issue is. They may think of “we do not have money” as an issue. At the worst case, they may mix the problems, which should be negative expressions, and the issues, which should be positive expressions.


Solution is a specific action to solve a problem, which is equal to a specific action to realize an issue. Some problem solvers do not break down issues into more specific actions. Issues are not solutions. Problem solvers must break down issues into specific action.

Thinking patterns

This report lists fourteen thinking patters. Problem solvers should choose appropriate patterns, responding to situations. This report categorized these fourteen patterns into three more general groups such as thinking patterns for judgements, thinking patterns for thinking processes and thinking patterns for efficient thinking. The following is the outlines of those thinking patterns.

Thinking patterns for judgements

In order to create a value through thinking we need to judge whether what we think is right or wrong. This report lists four judging patterns such as strategic thinking, emotional thinking, realistic thinking, and empirical thinking.

Strategic thinking

Focus, or bias, is the criterion for strategic thinking. If you judge whether a situation is right or wrong based on whether the situation is focused or not, your judgement is strategic. A strategy is not necessarily strategic. Historically, many strategists such as Sonfucis in ancient China, Naplon, M. Porter proposed strategic thinking when they develop strategies.

Emotional thinking

In organizations, an emotional aspect is essential. Tactical leaders judge whether a situation is right or wrong based on the participantsfemotional commitment. They think that if participants can be positive to a situation, the situation is right.

Realistic thinking

  • Start from what we can do
  • Fix the essential problem first

These two criteria are very useful. “Starting” is very important, even if we do very little. We do not have to start from the essential part. Even if we start from an easier part, starting is a better judgement than a judgement of not-starting in terms of the first part of realistic thinking. Further, after we start, we should search key factors to make the Problem Solving more efficient. Usually, 80 % of the problems are caused by only 20 % of the causes. If we can find the essential 20 % of the causes, we can fix 80 % of problems very efficiently. Then if we try to find the essential problem, what we are doing is right in terms of the second part of realistic thinking.

Empirical thinking

When we use empirical thinking, we judge whether the situation is right or wrong based on our past experiences. Sometimes, this thinking pattern persists on the past criteria too much, even if a situation has changed. But when it comes to our daily lives, situations do not change frequently. Further, if we have the experience of the identical situation before, we can utilize the experience as a reliable knowledge data base.

Thinking patterns for thinking processes

If we can think systematically, we do not have to be frustrated when we think. In contrast, if we have no systematic method, Problem Solving frustrate us. This reports lists five systematic thinking processes such as rational thinking, systems thinking, cause & effect thinking, contingent thinking, and the Toyotafs five times WHYs method .

Rational thinking

Rational thinking is one of the most common Problem Solving methods. This report will briefly show this Problem Solving method.

  1. Set the ideal situation
  2. Identify a current situation
  3. Compare the ideal situation and the current situation, and identify the problem situation
  4. Break down the problem to its causes
  5. Conceive the solution alternatives to the causes
  6. Evaluate and choose the reasonable solution alternatives
  7. Implement the solutions

We can use rational thinking as a Problem Solving method for almost all problems.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is a more scientific Problem Solving approach than the rational thinking approach. We set the system, which causes problems and analyze them based on systemsffunctions. The following arre the system and how the system works.


  • Purpose
  • Input
  • Output
  • Function
  • Inside cause (Solvable cause)
  • Outside cause (Unsolvable cause)
  • Result

In order to realize Purpose, we prepare Input and through Function we can get Output. But Output does not necessarily realize Purpose. Result of the Function may be different from Purpose. This difference is created by Outside Cause and Inside Cause. We can not solve Outside Cause but we can solve Inside Cause. For example, when we want to play golf, Purpose is to play golf. If we can not play golf, this situation is Output. If we can not play golf because of a bad weather, the bad weather is Outside Cause, because we can not change the weather. In contrast, if we cannot play golf because we left golf bags in our home, this cause is solvable. Then, that we left bags in our home is an Inside Cause.

Systems thinking is a very clear and useful method to solve problems.

Cause & effect thinking

Traditionally, we like to clarify cause and effect relations. We usually think of finding causes as solving problems. Finding a cause and effect relation is a conventional basic Problem Solving method.

Contingent thinking

Game Theory is a typical contingent thinking method. If we think about as many situations as possible, which may happen, and prepare solutions for each situation, this process is a contingent thinking approach.

Toyotafs five times WHYs

At Toyota, employees are taught to think WHY consecutively five times. This is an adaptation of cause and effect thinking. If employees think WHY and find a cause, they try to ask themselves WHY again. They continue five times. Through these five WHYS, they can break down causes into a very specific level. This five times WHYs approach is very useful to solve problems.

Thinking patterns for efficient thinking

In order to think efficiently, there are several useful thinking patterns. This report lists five patterns for efficient thinking such as hypothesis thinking, conception thinking, structure thinking, convergence & divergence thinking, and time order thinking.

Hypothesis thinking

If we can collect all information quickly and easily, you can solve problems very efficiently. But actually, we can not collect every information. If we try to collect all information, we need so long time. Hypothesis thinking does not require collecting all information. We develop a hypothesis based on available information. After we developed a hypothesis, we collect minimum information to prove the hypothesis. If the first hypothesis is right, you do not have to collect any more information. If the first hypothesis is wrong, we will develop the next hypothesis based on available information. Hypothesis thinking is a very efficient problem-solving method, because we do not have to waste time to collect unnecessary information.

Conception thinking

Problem Solving is not necessarily logical or rational. Creativity and flexibility are other important aspects for Problem Solving. We can not recognize these aspects clearly. This report shows only what kinds of tips are useful for creative and flexible conception. Following are portions of tips.

  • To be visual.
  • To write down what we think.
  • Use cards to draw, write and arrange ideas in many ways.
  • Change positions, forms, and viewpoints, physically and mentally.

We can imagine without words and logic, but in order to communicate to others, we must explain by words and logic. Therefore after we create ideas, we must explain them literally. Creative conception must be translated into reasonable explanations. Without explanations, conception does not make sense.

Structure thinking

If we make a structure like a tree to grasp a complex situation, we can understand very clearly.

Upper level should be more abstract and lower level should be more concrete. Dividing abstract situations from concrete situations is helpful to clarify the complex situations. Very frequently, problem solvers cannot arrange a situation clearly. A clear recognition of a complex situation increases efficiency of Problem Solving.

Convergence & divergence thinking

When we should be creative we do not have to consider convergence of ideas. In contrast, when we should summarize ideas we must focus on convergence. If we do convergence and divergence simultaneously, Problem Solving becomes inefficient.

Time order thinking

Thinking based on a time order is very convenient, when we are confused with Problem Solving. We can think based on a time order from the past to the future and make a complex situation clear.