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Developing New Ways to Tackle Problems — New Free Audiobook for Members

By Paul Lief Rosengren

There are many ways to attack a problem; however, we can easily be caught in the rut of applying the same approach to every problem we face. In the fifth and final audiobook of Sridhar Ramanathan’s series on critical thinking, Critical Thinking Skills for Engineers–Book 5: On Problem Solving, Ramanathan discusses ten different approaches to problem solving; explains each approach; and helpfully, gives strong examples on how companies or government agencies have used an approach to solve real world problems. He also provides tips that can, for instance, help a reader decide if an approach is appropriate for a problem they might be facing. This new audiobook is a great listen; and one you might want to share with your team members.

Ramanathan starts by diving into Problem Statements — quoting Charles Kettering, head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947: “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” The five steps he gives for developing a problem statement are:

Step 1: Context – Provide the backdrop that surrounds the issue.

Step 2: Current Situation – Describe when and where the problem is occurring; and why it is worth addressing.

Step 3: Impact – Clarify the magnitude of the problem: is it an irritant; a moderate challenge; or an intolerable situation that must be immediately addressed?

Step 4: Ideal State – Describe what success looks like and what metrics can be used to determine success.

Step 5: Potential Solutions – Frame suggestions on how your engineering team might find solutions to a problem.

Ramanathan then gives two examples (converting CO2 to useful products; and managing the increasing stockpiles of discarded batteries) and goes through the five steps with each. The examples he gives throughout the audiobook are compelling, relating directly to the strategies he explains.

Ramanathan then moves on to Root Cause Analysis — with examples from the Equifax data breach, and the NASA Challenger shuttle disaster. In both examples, he shows how investigators worked backward to uncover the source of the failure.

The other problem-solving techniques in the book with explanations, examples and tips are:

Abstraction – Citing examples of Waves, Tradedrink and Splunk, Ramanathan concludes, “Abstraction is a skill that engineers can develop by checking whether there’s a more generalized problem at hand; by creating a useful model to solve the problem; and by testing and tuning the model to deliver the best engineering solution.”

Analogy – Looking for similar problems that have been solved before. Ramanathan draws on the examples of the Traveling Salesman and Swarm Intelligence problems.

Brainstorming – The five steps Ramanathan suggests for a good brainstorm are: define the problem; go for quantity; suspend judgment (and have fun); combine ideas; and then, select the best idea.

Trial-and-Error – Ramanathan highlights Edison’s effort at trying more than 6,000 different materials when searching for the best filament for the light bulb. He suggests that Trial-and-Error is an effective approach to problem solving — when trials can be used to test ideas rapidly and cost effectively — modeling is difficult; the cost of a failure is low; and successful trial results are repeatable at scale.

Hypothesis Testing – With this technique, one suggests a solution based on limited information; then, tests and revises the hypothesis, as needed.

Divide and Conquer – For large complex engineering problems, Ramanathan suggests breaking it down into smaller problems that can be more easily solved.

Lateral Thinking – Sometimes called “thinking outside the box,” Ramanathan draws on Edith Clarke — and her challenge to the accepted belief that electricity could not be transmitted more than 50 miles. Clarke’s lateral thinking allowed her to develop tools and techniques critical to building out the transmission system — carrying electricity hundreds of miles from a generation source.

Reduction – Breaking a problem down into repeatable smaller ones. He gives the example of Carl Friedrich Gauss, who in elementary school was asked to add the integers 1 to 100. Gauss realized it was just 50 pairs that totaled 101 (1 plus 100, 2 plus 99 etc.) He then simply multiplied 50 x 101, surprising his teacher by quickly delivering the correct answer of 5050.

The audiobook Critical Thinking Skills for Engineers–Book 5: On Problem Solving, by Sridhar Ramanathan is available at the IEEE-USA Shop free for IEEE members. You can also find these other e-book and audiobooks by Ramanathan, published by IEEE-USA:


Paul Lief Rosengren

Paul Lief Rosengren is a frequent contributor to IEEE-USA InSight and author of the Famous Women Engineers in History series. He also co-authored In the Time of COVID: One Hospital’s Struggles and Triumphs about the first year of COVID at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, NJ. Rosengren previously worked in internal and external communications for the State of New Jersey, NBC, PSEG, and BD. While at PSEG, he was a founding member of the PSEG Diversity Council, initiated and facilitated the PSEG D&I Book Club and received the PR News Diversity Award.

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