Running into a Wall: Engineering Problem Solving

Trail runners tend to sign-up for several different events to see nature and experience the feeling of true freedom.  A trail runner will train for a race by learning the different sections of the terrain, studying elevation maps, and reviewing the routes.  Sometimes, last minute changes can occur to the trail route due to unknown events.  A few years back I came across one of these last-minute changes where the race coordinator stated the new route section was going to be EPIC.  Fifteen miles into the trail run, I approached the unknown section and discovered why it was epic.  The new trail section was a good quarter mile of rocks going up the side of a mountain.  What a challenge! Let’s use some problem-solving skills!

For the new engineer coming into the industry, one primary skill that you will need to exercise and perfect is your problem-solving skills.  These skills can be used on small decisions like, “should I wear a jacket today?”, up to the large opportunity such as, “why is their rapid grain growth in solution heat treated 188”?  I work in quality, metallurgy, and management.  Problem-solving is part of the everyday routine. My years of experience have taught me that problem-solving can be implemented in four basic steps: Outline the Problem, Generate Multiple Solutions, Select a Solution, and Implement.

Outline the Problem: You will want to diagnose the situation to focus on the problem, and not the symptoms. A great method is to implement root cause corrective action process.  For quality, we love to implement the cause-and-effect diagram also referred to as a fishbone diagram.

Generate Multiple Solutions:  Don’t stop at one solution.  You should always have multiple solutions identified before starting to evaluate.  This will prevent the common mistake of evaluating as solutions are proposed, resulting in the first acceptable solution chosen and not the best fit. Remember, if you are focused on trying to get results required, you will miss the potential for learning something and allowing real improvement.

Select a Solution:  There are several things to consider when evaluating and selecting the best solution, such as; will all persons involved accept the solution, does the selected solution fit the organization constraints, will the selected solution solve the problem without causing other problems, is implementation likely? Now chose.

Implement:  One of the best ways to implement a solution is to involve others in the implementation process.  This will help you to sell the solution and minimize resistance to subsequent changes.  As part of the implementation remember to build feedback channels to monitor if the solution is giving expected results.  Remember your overall goal is learning for improvement.

As for my trivial problem during the race, I had to act fast and perform a quick outline of what my different solutions were and which to implement. My stubborn personality chose to go through the large rocks by bouldering. The feedback I received from my selection is I am a capable climber and visiting the rock climbing gym has improved my skills. I finished the race and enjoyed my achievement.


Problem: How to get to the top of the trail?




Go Back Run about 7 miles until last check point; DNF; Limited Hydration Finish
Go Around Cause damage to environment; Increase time Finish
Go Through Exhaust Energy; Fall; Strain Finish


Author: Natalie Grace Keyser

I am a dedicated Quality/Technology Manager, driven Metallurgical Engineer, Supporter of Future Professional. My professional personality shows in my running, where I will not back down from a challenge or slow down before the finish line is reached.

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