The Simplex Process
A Robust and Creative Problem-Solving Tool
Imagine that you and your team are tasked with eliminating bottlenecks in your organization's billing process. Suppliers are angry, managers are frustrated, and the problem is costing the company money.
But, try as you might, you just can't pinpoint what's wrong, and the fixes that you've tried so far haven't worked.
Here's where the Simplex Process could help. This powerful tool enables you to identify and deal with problems creatively and effectively. It takes you through an eight-step process, from identifying the problem to implementing a solution.
In this article, we'll explain what the Simplex Process is, and describe how to use each stage.
Click here to view a transcript of this video.
What Is the Simplex Process?
The Simplex Process was created by management and creativity specialist Min Basadur, and was popularized in his 1995 book, "The Power of Innovation."
The process is made up of eight steps, grouped into three stages: Problem Formulation, Solution Formulation and Solution Implementation. It is a versatile tool that can be used in organizations of all sizes, and for almost any type of problem.
Basadur has developed and refined the Simplex Process since the original publication of his book. Figure 1, below explains the most recent version.
Figure 1. Follow eight steps to solve a problem by using the Simplex Process.
Reproduced with permission from Bob Basadur. See Basadur Applied Creativity for more information on Simplex and Simplexity Thinking. From "The Power of Innovation: How to Make Innovation a Way of Life & How to Put Creative Solutions to Work," by Min Basadur. Copyright © 1995 and 2002.
How to Use the Simplex Process
Let's look at the eight steps in more detail, below.
1. Problem Finding
Often, the most difficult part of any problem-solving exercise is finding the right issue to tackle. So, this is the first step to carry out. Problems may be obvious but, if they're not, you can identify them by using “trigger questions” such as:
- What do our customers want us to improve? What are they complaining about?
- What could they be doing better if we were to help them?
- What small problems do we have that could grow into bigger ones?
- What slows down our work or makes it more difficult? How can we improve quality?
- What are our competitors doing that we could do?
- What is frustrating and irritating to our team?
You can also consider issues that may arise in the future.
For example, think about how you expect markets and customers to change over the next few years. There could be problems as your organization expands. Social, political or legal changes may affect it, too. See our article, PEST Analysis for more on this.
It's also worth exploring possible problems from the perspective of different "actors" in the situation. This is where techniques such as the CATWOE checklist are helpful.
You may not have enough information to define your problem precisely, even after asking plenty of questions. But don't worry about this until you reach Step 3!
2. Fact Finding
The next stage is to research the problem as fully as possible.
Start by analyzing the data you have to see whether the problem really does exist. Then, establish whether the benefits of solving the problem will be worth the effort and resources that you'll need to spend.
Be clear which processes, components, services or technologies you want to use, and explore any solutions that others have already tried.
Next, work out how different people perceive the situation, explore your customers' needs in more detail, and investigate your competitors' best ideas.
3. Problem Definition
Identify the problem at the right level. For example, if you ask questions about it in terms that are too broad, then you'll never have enough resources to answer them effectively. If, however, your questions are too narrow, you may end up fixing the symptoms of a problem, rather than the problem itself. Our article, The Problem Definition Process, explores this issue.
Min Basadur suggests asking "Why?" to broaden your definition of the problem, and "What's stopping you?" to narrow it.
Let's say your system has difficulty maintaining stock levels in your warehouse. Start by asking, "Why is the system not doing its job properly?" The answer might lead you to ask a broader question, such as, "Why are we asking the system to do something that it's not good at?"
A "What's stopping you?" question here could give you the answer, "We don't know enough about the capabilities of the system we're using." In this way you may realize that you're not actually looking to fix a malfunctioning part, but to get the warehouse to use the system correctly, or to introduce a new system that is a better fit.
Big problems are often made up of many smaller ones. In the Problem Definition stage you can use a technique like Drill Down to break the problem down to its component parts. You can also use the 5 Whys Technique, Cause and Effect Analysis and Root Cause Analysis to help you get to the root of a problem.
Negative thinking can affect the Problem Definition stage. You or your team might start using phrases such as "We can't," or "We don't," or "This costs too much." Shift the focus toward creating a solution by addressing objections with the phrase "How might we...?".
4. Idea Finding
Generate as many problem-solving ideas as possible.
Ways of doing this range from asking other people for their opinions, through programmed creativity tools such as Creative Problem Solving and lateral-thinking techniques, to brainstorming. You should also look at the problem from other perspectives.
Don't evaluate or criticize ideas during this stage. Instead, just concentrate on generating ideas. Remember, impractical ideas can often trigger good ones!
5. Evaluation and Selection
Once you have generated a number of possible solutions to your problem, you need to select the best one.
The best solution may be obvious. If it's not, then consider the criteria that you'll use to select the best idea. Our articles on Decision Making Techniques explore a wide range of methods for doing this.
Once you've selected an idea, develop it as far as possible. You then need to evaluate it. Common sense is more important than ego here: be objective, and consider each course of action on its merits.
If your idea doesn't offer a big enough benefit, either see whether you can generate more ideas, or restart the process. (You can waste years of your life developing creative ideas that no-one wants!)
6. Action Planning
When you've picked an idea, and you're confident that it's worthwhile, it's time to start planning its implementation.
Developing Action Plans is a good way to manage simple projects. Action plans lay out the who, what, when, where, why, and how of delivering the work.
For larger projects, it's worth using formal project management techniques. These enable you to deliver projects efficiently, successfully, and within a realistic timeframe.
7. Gaining Acceptance
Until this stage you may have been working on your own, or with just a small team. Now you have to sell your solution to the people you need support from. These people may include your boss, investors, and any other stakeholders involved with the project.
When you're selling your idea, you'll have to address not only the practicalities, but also other factors, such as internal politics and fear of change. Your goal should be to foster both a sense of ownership among the stakeholders, and an understanding of the benefits they will derive from what you're doing.
Also, think about change management in cases where implementation is likely to affect several people or groups of people. Understanding this will help you to make sure that your project gains support.
After the creativity and preparation comes action.
This is where your careful work and planning pays off. Again, if you're implementing a large-scale change or project, brushing up on your change-management skills can help you to implement the process smoothly.
When the action is under way, return to Stage 1, Problem Finding, to continue developing your idea. You can also adopt the principles of the Kaizen model of continuous improvement to refine your project.
Simplex is a powerful approach to creative problem-solving. It is suitable for projects and organizations of almost any scale.
The process follows an eight-step cycle. When you've completed each step, you can start it again to find and solve another problem. This encourages a culture of continuous improvement.
The eight steps in the process are:
- Problem Finding.
- Fact Finding.
- Problem Definition.
- Idea Finding.
- Evaluation and Selection.
- Action Planning.
- Gaining Acceptance.
This process can foster intense creativity: by moving through these steps you give yourself the best chance of solving the most significant problems with the best solutions available.