One of the things that makes a company enjoyable to work at is having a culture of problem solving. Problem solving is not only a skill, but also a mindset. It’s being able to analyze a situation, identify the root causes, and come up with effective solutions. Problem solving involves communicating clearly and collaborating with others. You can’t solve a problem alone; you need to share your ideas and listen to feedback.

I want to share the problem solving steps I use in an analytical environment. These ideas and tips are based on my own experience as a scientist, as well as on best-practices at Activated Research Company.

1. Clearly Define the Problem. My first step in problem solving is to clearly define the problem. What are the issues? What are the symptoms? What are the goals? What are the consequences? A clearly defined problem helps me focus on the important aspects and avoid the distractions. When working on a gas chromatograph (GC) – I find that looking through method parameters and chromatograms can provide crucial information.

2. Encourage Brainstorming. My second step in problem solving is to generate as many ideas as possible. This lets us explore different possibilities without judging or criticizing. The key is to encourage everyone to participate and share their thoughts. When problem solving an issue on a GC-Polyarc®-FID system, I will offer numerous ideas around the problem. There might be 10 problems with the system but as long as the issue we’re brainstorming on is in that list of 10 – we will make progress.

3. Evaluate and Prioritize Solutions. My third step in problem solving is to evaluate and prioritize the solutions. Criteria like feasibility, ease of testing, and likelihood factor into my decision making. The goal is to narrow down the options and choose the most promising ones. If a solution can be easily tested, it doesn’t hurt to collect another data point to help me better understand the issue. Steps one, two, and three often blend together. As I learn about a problem, I can’t help but offer potential solutions that help me understand if they’re aligned with the issue.

4. Implement and Monitor Solutions. My fourth step in problem solving is to implement and monitor the solutions we’ve selected. The goal is to run experiments that help determine the core issue. Fortunately, some issues will be resolved during this process. For example, one way to determine if your catalyst has been poisoned by sulfur is to attempt to burn off the damaging poison to regenerate the catalyst.

5. Learn and Improve. My fifth step in problem solving is to learn and improve from each experience. Every problem must be seen for the first time. Sometimes they are real headscratchers, but once I reach a solution – the next time will be easier. One of the most-common symptoms I hear is that there are no chromatogram peaks on a customer’s GC-Polyarc®-FID. While it might be a common symptom, there are numerous causes – and I’ve worked through all of them with these problem-solving steps.

Effective problem solving is not only a way to deal with challenges, but also a way to create value and opportunity. Problem solving is a skill and a mindset I continue to cultivate and nurture in both myself and others.