The noted engineer and business executive, Dinish Paliwal, once remarked, “Problem solving is essential to engineering. Engineers are constantly on the lookout for a better way to do things.”
In the fifth – and final – volume of his valuable e-book series, Critical Thinking Skills for Engineers, Sridhar Ramanathan offers ten proven strategies that offer a better way to do just that. His discussion of each method should motivate even the most jaded technical professional to explore and manage engineering challenges with a fresh perspective.
Ramanathan, who is managing director and co-founder of Aventi Group, a high-tech product-marketing group in San Francisco, firmly believes that critical thinking is vital for engineers and other technical professionals. “It enables you to help deliver the most effective and potentially novel breakthrough solution you can,” he says.
The author packs this final volume with many helpful ideas to help boost one’s problem-solving abilities using these methods:
- Problem statement
- Root cause analysis
- Trial and error
- Hypothesis testing
- Divide and conquer
- Lateral thinking
He believes constructing the Problem Statement is the most important step of all in problem solving. He observes that Charles Kettering – the remarkable engineer, inventor and one-time head of research at General Motors – once summed up this critical step saying, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”
Ramanathan goes on to examine what he believes are the five key steps to developing effective problem statements: providing context, describing the current situation, clarifying the impact, describing the ideal state, and framing potential solutions. The goal, he explains, is to create concise, actionable problem statements.
Root Cause Analysis is another problem-solving tactic the author discusses at length. He uses the ASQ definition of root cause: “the core issue – the highest-level cause – that sets in motion the entire cause-and-effect reaction that ultimately leads to the problem(s).” He then provides examples, with two famous events in which investigators used Root Cause Analysis to determine the basic cause.
The first is the 2017 breach of Equifax by hackers, who exploited the servers of the credit-reporting agency. Ramanathan maps out how the United States General Accounting Office worked backward to ultimately discover that the customer complaint database had been left vulnerable to outside attacks.
“(Investigators) mapped the entire sequence of events that led to the breach,” he writes. “This is the heart of root cause analysis: sequencing events until you get to the core issue.”
The other example he provides of effectively using root-cause analysis is the Rogers Commission Investigation of the 1986 NASA Challenger shuttle disaster, which killed all seven astronauts on board. Much like the Equifax case, the investigators worked backward: from the explosion to a plume seen emanating from one of the solid-rocket boosters; to the seam where the solid rocket boosters were joined by O-rings that were meant to seal the seam; and ultimately, to the precise location of the O-ring failure.
However, Ramanathan points out that correlation is not causation. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who served as one of the investigators, had to prove with the others that each step of the failure led to a subsequent failure in a chain of events leading to the ultimate disaster.
One especially intriguing problem-solving strategy the author recommends is that of Analogy. “Many engineering problems that arise have actually already been solved in another context or situation,” he writes. Instead of starting from scratch, the author asks: Why not see whether an analogous problem in a totally different field might have a working solution?
One of the examples that illustrates his point is the so-called “traveling salesman problem” – situations where the shortest path must be computed to connect multiple points. Ramanathan observes this particular challenge appears in such diverse fields as logistics, DNA sequencing, astronomy, airline routing and manufacturing materials handling.
“The good news is this class of problem has been solved, and solutions are readily available,” he writes, observing the engineer faced with this problem could leverage an existing software algorithm to save time and money.
Critical Thinking Skills for Engineers – Book 5: Problem Solving is available free for members via the IEEE-USA Shop. Non-members pay $2.99.
The first four e-books in the Critical Thinking series are devoted to analytical skills, communication, creativity and open-mindedness. As with this final volume on Problem Solving, each e-book is also available, free to IEEE members, and $4.99 for non-members.
Sridhar Ramanathan has 30 years of experience in technology companies, ranging from startups to blue-chip firms. In his role with Aventi Group, he has been instrumental in leading many high-tech organizations through high-growth phases. Prior to to-starting Aventi, he was the marketing executive for Hewlett-Packard’s Managed Services business. Ramanathan has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business; and a B.S. in Engineering Physics, from the University of California, Berkeley.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.