Jeanne Lewin, a Frankfort, Illinois, registered occupational therapist, didn't set out to start a company; she just wanted to solve a problem. The children Lewin worked with needed a piece of equipment that would help them improve their motor skills. It had to be safe, strong, compact, adjustable and easy to maneuver and disassemble.
To come up with her product idea, Lewin could have sketched what she needed and made a prototype. Instead, she used systematic, creative problem-solving techniques to invent a piece of equipment called the Tramble--named after a combination of the words "table" and "ramp"--that encourages children to move in a fun and playful way. Her product fit the bill so well that she has sold more than 500 Trambles to therapists in the United States and Europe.
It's possible that Lewin might have come up with the Tramble if she'd pondered the problem for a few days or did some informal brainstorming with other occupational therapists, but using a step-by-step approach focused her attention on the challenge and enabled her to expand way beyond her initial idea.
There is no one patented problem-solving method that works best for everyone in all situations. But there are many people, like Lewin, who find a step-by-step process most helpful.
One commonly accepted approach is outlined by James Higgins, Ph.D., professor of management at the Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. In his book, 101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques (The New Management Publishing Co., $17.95, 800-266-8283), Higgins identifies eight steps to problem-solving: analyzing the environment, recognizing a problem, identifying the problem, making assumptions, generating alternatives, choosing among alternatives, implementing the chosen solution and taking control.
"But following the exact procedure is less important than knowing some techniques that you can use to learn about the problem and seek solutions," says Higgins. Out of the 101 techniques listed in his book, he points to brainstorming and mind-mapping as basics that every business owner can use.