eLearning Skills 2030: Structured Problem-Solving Methods

eLearning Skills 2030: Structured Problem-Solving
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Summary: As change accelerates and the business landscape continues to change rapidly, the workforce needs to strengthen several sets of skills to anticipate unprecedented challenges. One set of skills centers on thinking differently, which includes using structured problem-solving.

Acronyms With An Edge: PDCA, DMAIC, And OODA Loop

As machines become increasingly more accurate and intelligent, we humans will need to sharpen our cognitive skills. One of your primary responsibilities as a Learning and Development (L&D) leader is to ensure that you empower the workforce to develop the four sets of skills that are critical to thriving in 2030. I will be publishing a series of ten articles, on "eLearning Skills 2030", exploring all the skills to make your job easier. This, the first in the "eLearning Skills 2030" article series, explores structured problem-solving.

What Is Structured Problem-Solving?

Most likely, not a week passes when you are not faced with a problem you need to solve. As the volume, velocity, and complexity of change increases, our ability to solve problems, especially ones we have never faced before, becomes vital. Structured problem-solving is a process for solving problems, big or small, using a sequence of specific steps within a given time frame. In their MIT Sloane Management Review research, Reppening, Kiefer, and Astor called structured problem-solving the "most underrated skill in management" because most managers who fail to understand what problem they are trying to solve jump to conclusions [1]. Structured problem-solving is different from decision-making. Structured problem-solving offers alternative solutions to a problem, whereas decision-making is about choosing which one of the possible solutions to implement.

Why Is Structured Problem-Solving Necessary?

In a business context, structured problem-solving offers several benefits, including saving resources, decreasing risk, and increasing revenue. Specifically, structured problem-solving can help us in many ways, including reducing time spent in debate, identifying bottlenecks in processes, discovering root causes, explaining with data why an incident occurred, and offering ways to solve problems and prevent them from happening again.

How Can You Apply Structured Problem-Solving?

The foundational and must-do step in structured problem-solving is to answer a basic but essential question: "what problem are you trying to solve?" To answer the question, you must define the problem. Famously, a maxim often attributed to Einstein instructs that if you have 1 hour to solve a problem, you should spend 30 minutes analyzing the situation, 20 minutes planning, and 10 minutes executing the solution [2]. Once you have defined the problem, you can begin implementing structured problem-solving. Several models of structured problem-solving all follow a similar approach, starting with identifying the problem, analyzing why the problem occurred using data, identifying possible solutions, and implementing one of them. In this article, we will briefly review three structured problem-solving methods: PDCA (plan-do-check-act), DMAIC (define-measure-analyze-improve-control), and the OODA Loop (observe, orient, decide, act).

1. Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle

The Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, first designed by Edwards Deming, includes an iterative four-step process: plan, do, check, act [3]. You can use the PDCA process when starting a new improvement project, implementing any form of change, and focusing on continuous improvement. During the "plan" phase, you define the problem and plan a change. In the "do" phase, you implement what you planned to change, usually by conducting a pilot that is smaller in scale, less expensive, and less risky. In the "check" phase, you collect and evaluate the pilot data so that you can check if the approach you came up with to solve your problem is working. If it works, you proceed to the "act" phase and scale out the solution. If the solution is not working, you begin the cycle again based on the learnings from the "check" phase, and you continue iterating until you solve the problem or implement the change you planned.


The DMAIC process is a data-driven structured problem-solving approach used to identify bottlenecks and improve processes. While the DMAIC process originated in the Six Sigma methodology, it can be used as a stand-alone process to solve a problem. DMAIC includes five steps: define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. Each step includes specific tools you can use to make sense of the data, your progress, and the steps. During the "define" phase, you define the problem and the customer needs, and you map out the current process using tools, including a value stream [4]. In the "measure" phase, you review and measure the current process and collect data about how the process is performing using tools such as the Pareto chart [5]. In the "analyze" phase, you analyze the data and search for root causes of the problem using tools such as root cause analysis and failure mode and effects analysis [6]. In the "improve" phase, you design a pilot using a design of experiments tool or implement a Kaizen event [7]. During this phase, you implement the solution by eliminating the root causes of the problem. Finally, in the "control" phase, you scale out the pilot approach and continue to monitor the data to ensure the process is working correctly, and your problem is resolved.

3. OODA Loop

US Air Force Colonel John Boyd developed the OODA loop to quickly process a challenge and overtake adversaries in combat. In a business context, the OODA loop is equally valuable as it offers another structured problem-solving approach that is practical and actionable. The OODA loop includes four phases: observe, orient, decide, and act. During the "observe" phase, you need to gather information and data about the issue at hand, paying attention to incomplete information. In the "orient" phase, you process the information by analyzing and synthesizing, and adding new information as it becomes available. In the "decide" phase, you frame the hypothesis of what steps to take. In the "act" phase, you implement the decision and any related updates based on continuously changing information. The OODA loop is used in a business context to anticipate competitor intentions, make decisions, and implement them.


Several structured problem-solving techniques include PDCA, DMAIC, and the OODA Loop in their processes. Learning and Development leaders have a dual responsibility to sharpen their structured problem-solving skills and those of the workforce to thrive in 2030, and beyond.


[1] The Most Underrated Skill in Management

[2] Structured Problem Solving (High Level)