The Simplex Process

When you’re solving business issues, it’s easy to overlook key steps in the problem-solving process, and this means you can miss good solutions, or even define the problem incorrectly.

The Simplex Process

One way to avoid this occurring is to use the Simplex Process model. It is an effective step-by-step method, which helps problem solving groups (PS groups) find and creatively and successfully solve problems.

It leads the PS groups through each phase of the problem-solving procedure, from diagnosing the problem to implementing a solution. This helps the PS group to ensure that solutions are imaginative, stable and well thought-out.

About the Method

It is an iterative process of three distinct phases and eight steps (problem finding, fact finding and problem definition; solution finding and decision making; action planning, acceptance planning and decision implementation).

First, in every step, ‘active divergence’ is used. This is where groups generate as many ideas or options as they can discover, in an environment in which separate opinions are deferred in order to find new relationships between facts and data.

The Simplex Process Model

During divergence all group members continue to investigate relationships until all the options have been found. Next, there is active convergence, the participants come together and find consensus on which option(s) they want to use in the next step.

The Simplex Process Phases

Throughout the steps vertical deferral of judgment takes place. This involves being open minded about new ideas, facts and opportunities. It enables the group to look for alternate ways to define the problem, and use innovative ways to both solve the problem and implement it.

It also helps the PS group to differentiate between unclear (fuzzy) situations and well defined problems, and to perceive the difference between defining a problem and solving a problem.

As with the Six Step Method and PDCA it is not a single straight-line process, but a continuous cycle.

Simplex Process Phases

This means that problem solving does not halt once the solution is implemented. Instead the conclusion of one cycle of improvement activates the next.

Phase 1 Problem Formulation

Phase 1 contains the first three steps in the Simplex Process. This phase is about creating a holistic formulation of the problem. It begins with finding a problem – usually in relation to a specific aspect of the business or organisation.

This phase includes focusing on the more unusual aspects of the problem, and generating a relatable, clear and specific definition.

Step 1: Problem Finding involves finding or foreseeing problems and opportunities. This step looks at assessing needs both internally and externally.

Unlike other problem solving systems, the problem is not known before the process starts.

Rather in step one the problem solving group seeks to identify as many existing or potential problems as possible – using active divergence, and then select one to work on using active convergence.

Step 2: Fact Finding involves dynamically collecting information related to the current situation in relation to the selected problem. The group then use active convergence to evaluate, assess and choose the facts and data that they believe are most relevant to developing a productive, beneficial problem definition in the next step.

Active Convergence

Step 3: Problem Definition this involves using divergence to translate the key facts and create a range of thoughtful and dynamic definitions of the problem. The group then select a statement to be explored in more detail.

As the problem is explored a problem definition map is produced. This is created done by asking ‘why-what is stopping’ questions, to create and explore the problem definition in more detail. For example –

Why do we want to improve our product packaging? Answer: to make the product last longer.

What is stopping us from making the product packaging better? Answer: Our equipment is outdated.

The group will then choose, via active convergence, the one statement they feel is the strongest candidate to use for problem solving.

Phase 2 – Solution Formulation

This phase is about finding solutions to the problem defined in Phase 1 and contains two steps – Idea Finding and Evaluation and Selection. After forming a range of ideas, the PS group moves on to evaluating and selecting the final solution.

Like the other phases it uses deferral of judgment to uncover as many creative solutions as possible, enabling effective evaluation and selection of a solution. Ideas should be novel, exciting, and feasible.

Step 4: Idea Finding consists of using active divergence to design a large number of possible solutions, for the chosen problem definition. The PS group then use active convergence to eliminate the weakest solutions. This results in a small number of potential options that the group believe offer the strongest opportunities for addressing the problem, as they have defined it.

Idea Finding

Step 5: Evaluation and Selection is about assessing the solutions by generating a set of evaluation criteria. The criteria are required to make an objective, unbiased, realistic evaluation of the potential solutions. Using active divergence, the group create as many criteria as possible, in an open minded way. Then using active convergence, the group select the most appropriate criteria to evaluate the solutions created in the previous steps. The evaluation is then performed, and using the results of the evaluation, the final solution is identified. This solution is then taken forward into the Solution Implementation Phase.

Phase 3 – Solution Implementation

This phase acknowledges that problem solving needs to go through several steps before a chosen solution is implemented. The solution needs to be thoroughly prepared for implementation, and the implementation proficiently performed.

Solution Implementation

The phase involves gaining support for taking measured risks, building commitment to change, making sure the solution is flexible and adaptable, and to continuously reflect on the solution after implementation.

Step 6: Action Planning is about discovering the tasks needed before and during the implementation. Using active divergence, the PS group will come up with as many potential actions as possible.

During active convergence the group will focus in on the most appropriate actions to take forward.

Step 7: Gaining Acceptance finds ways to encourage staff members to take ownership of the changes needed to implement and use the solution. This involves generating ideas to reduce resistance to change, how people can be shown the benefits of implementing the solution, and the actions needed to manage risks.

Gaining Acceptance

As in the other steps as many ways of gaining acceptance are generated, and then narrowed down to the actions that are most effective and achievable.

Step 8: Action Taking is the final stage and recognizes that undertaking action is part of the overall decision making and problem solving process, and deserves as much attention as the other steps. This step is about ‘getting on with it’ and implementing the solution – a reflection stage.

Active divergence can be used by the PS group to generate ideas about where the implementation is failing and succeeding, and then use active convergence to narrow these down to the most important ones to be addressed as part of the implementation.

After the implementation is completed, groups then return to Step one to continue refining the problem and the solution. The Simplex Model is more complex than many other problem-solving methods, as it requires developing skills in active convergence and divergence, alongside vertical deferral of judgment.

Simplex Process Overview

However, if time is given to developing these skills it enables an in-depth and creative approach to problem solving, that produces novel, innovative ways to obtain and implement a solution.

Key Points

  • The Simplex Process is an effective step-by-step method, which leads the problem solving group through each phase of the problem-solving procedure, from diagnosing the problem to implementing a solution.
  • It is an iterative process of three distinct phases and eight steps (problem finding, fact finding and problem definition; solution finding and decision making; action planning, acceptance planning and decision implementation).
  • Phase 1: Problem Formulation contains the first 3 steps and creates a holistic formulation of the problem.
  • Phase 2: Solution Formulation is about finding solutions to the problem defined in Phase 1 and contains 2 steps: Idea Finding and Evaluation and Selection.
  • Phase 3: Solution Implementation acknowledges that problem solving needs to go through several steps before a chosen solution is implemented.
  • Step 1: Problem Finding involves finding or foreseeing problems and opportunities.
  • Step 2: Fact Finding involves dynamically collecting information related to the current situation in relation to the selected problem.
  • Step 3: Problem Definition involves using divergence to translate the key facts and create a range of thoughtful and dynamic definitions of the problem.
  • Step 4: Idea Finding consists of using active divergence to design a large number of possible solutions, for the chosen problem definition.
  • Step 5: Evaluation and Selection is about assessing the solutions by generating a set of evaluation criteria.
  • Step 6: Action Planning is about discovering the tasks needed before and during the implementation.
  • Step 7: Gaining acceptance finds ways to encourage staff members to take ownership of the changes needed to implement and use the solution.
  • Step 8: Action Taking is the final stage and recognizes that undertaking action is part of the overall decision making and problem solving process.
  • The Simplex Model requires developing skills in active convergence and divergence, alongside vertical deferral of judgement but it enables an in-depth and creative approach to problem solving, that produces innovative ways to obtain and implement a solution.

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