Stillwater’s Problem Solving Process

November 15, 2013 By

Because we want to make a new client’s experience as efficient and productive as possible, we thought it would be helpful to explain the problem solving process Stillwater uses when we first meet a client.

Clients come to Stillwater for two main purposes:

  1. Companies see opportunities they want to explore and evaluate. Stillwater has long and broad experience in transportation fuels and energy. We have resources in all aspects of these fields. Our favorite first phone call begins, “Hi, you don’t know me, but a mutual friend said you were the only people who can help me with my problem.” The potential client has ideas about how to expand or improve their business, but not know how to assess or proceed. We can often identify opportunities the client may have missed.
  2. Companies have problems to solve. Management teams may be too close to the situation to take an objective view, or have issues with office, social, or political agendas, which influence thinking and muddy the waters. Stillwater consultants, as outsiders, can take a clearer, more objective outlook and identify solutions the client may have overlooked.

Folks often come to us with what we call unstructured problems. This term refers to any situation that can be approached from numerous directions. When faced with an unstructured problem, we take three steps (the first being the most important and often the most difficult).

1.  Identify the correct problem or opportunity. This is where clear thinking and background are essential. Occasionally clients bring a project summary which includes background information, an overview of work done, options already eliminated and why, and possibilities considered. We find project summaries very helpful. More often however, the early client meetings are focused on further project clarification. We frequently see companies who have expended large amounts of time, energy and expense without accomplishing their goals or creating any real value. This is because they have misidentified the problem from the beginning of the project. We are brought in at a later stage of the project, after it has stalled. What we have found is that difficulties have arisen because the wrong question is being worked.

We begin initial client meetings by asking lots of questions.  Sometimes the questions may seem to have obvious answers, however, having to verbailze the answer can clarify and define the problem. We may use the news reporter’s “WH’s” technique to find out the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of the story. By the time these questions are answered the client and Stillwater are a long way toward having the up-front information needed to work efficiently.  Questions and answers stimulate the thought process and may help all involved to see the situation in a new or more well-defined way. Additionally, we often use visual brainstorming techniques with our clients to build understanding and consensus about the problem. This is a powerful tool that helps to communicate the ideas, issues, and solutions between people.

Our experience has taught us that companies frequently stumble because they are asking the wrong question. We recently had a client ask us to project the economics of a certain transportation path. We worked the client’s question, but in doing so discovered an alternative they had not previously considered. The alternative was clearly superior to the action plan the client originally studied. This is an example of asking the wrong question.

Alternately the client’s process may be unclear. One client came to us to interpret the results of a study they made which had confusing results. When results were returned, a number of them were huddled around response A, another group huddled around response B, and yet another group around response C. After some head scratching and careful questioning, we realized the problem wasn’t that unusual array of answers, but that the original question had been asked in a way that allowed for three different interpretations. The respondents had been answering three different questions.

2. Generate alternatives to solve the problem or capture the opportunity. We brainstorm pros and cons, develop background issues, and explore possible outcomes. Another powerful tool at this stage is a risk analysis. For example, what could go wrong with this course of action? What steps should be taken now to eliminate or mitigate risk? This is where creative thinking and an address book of experienced experts in various aspects of the industry are essential.

3. Recommend the best course of action. At this stage, keeping our eyes on the money is essential. Often in a company, clear economic drives are sidetracked by political, social or other lofty objectives. This may be survivable in the short term, but will be disastrous long term.

At Stillwater, our experience and dedication work to turn unstructured problems into structured solutions. Creating value for our clients is our mission and our pleasure.