KEPNER FOURIE - mis problem solving

“It normally took our IT professionals about 20 -23 days to solve a chronic system problem, and that was too long for our clients to live with. With the help of the systematic and powerful KEPNERandFOURIE MIS problem solving approaches we’ve managed to bring down this ‘Mean Time to Solve a Problem’ to around 5-6 days.”
(IT Infrastructure Director, Unisys)

IT professionals are highly skilled and knowledgeable in their various areas of discipline and they normally approach any incident from that knowledge perspective. However there is not a single college or university that is educating their MIS graduates in the process of problem solving. Problem solving in the IT industry normally consists of flowchart and checklist problem solving approaches.

The IT professionals have never been taught how to “think” through a problem, because they have developed effective checklist approaches for problems such as;

  • Email connections are dropping,
  • Operating system not booting,
  • ABC booting off user during transaction,
  • Server having an outage.

These problems can range from simple routine to massively intricate outage problems and in all cases the IT professional would prefer to use their checklist approach to solve it. However, with the checklist/flow diagram the IT professional does not have the means of knowing if they are dealing with a major or a minor problem and that could cost a lot of money, time and effort. They would normally have the eternal optimism that they will solve the problem in the next few minutes until it develops into the next few hours. Then this syndrome will roll over into the next day and then into the day thereafter until it is eventually solved or never solved.

The following is a personal story; the above was demonstrated by a MIS professional trying to solve my connectivity problem of my PDA. This is how he went about solving my problem:

  • First he identified that it was a connectivity problem and then he started to check the typical causes for connectivity. Although his experience is mostly in data bases, VPN connectivity and mainframe computer situations, he used that same knowledge and experience to validate his first few hypotheses regarding my problem.
  • He quickly worked through his mental checklist and disproved his first few hypotheses. This went on for some time and I was getting tired looking at what he was doing. I questioned him about this and his answer was that every time he disproves one of his theories he is learning something about the problem and in the same time getting closer to the answer.
  • He could not solve this problem on that particular evening and I’ve decided to leave my PDA with him for a few days to get to the bottom of the problem.
  • He eventually solved the problem after four days testing various theories and visiting various websites to learn more about the problem. He was very impressed with himself and so he should be, because he eventually solved an “unknown” problem with an unknown cause with the help of further reading and learned a heap in the process.
  • Without a doubt he will now add what he has learned to his set of checklist possible causes to test similar problems in the future.

The above encounter was a typical situation that MIS professionals go through on a daily basis. MIS problems could be “classified” into three levels or three tiers. These levels are summarized in the following diagram:

MIS Level of Problems














  • Level One:

These are normally TYPICAL PROBLEMS with three to five TYPICAL and known CAUSES. This is the typical situation where a person cannot get a laptop to boot correctly. The MIS professional knows that there are about four reasons why this could be happening and he/she will immediately start with a checklist of possible causes that proved to be one of the answers every time.

When the problem solver exhausted these typical causes as not applicable in this particular situation, then they gravitate to more serious type possible causes. These causes are in some way foreign to the problem solver and they will now come up with expert guesses based on their experience and knowledge. This would put the troubleshooter into the next level of problem solving.

  • Level Two:

These would constitute NON-TYPICAL problems with some EXPERT GUESSES of what could be causing it. At this level the troubleshooter moves into uncertain territory and now has to rely on past experience, gut feel and logic to solve this problem. This is the part of the problem solving process that could stretch the problem solving exercise into days and weeks. Now they have to try to solve this problem in an intuitive way and unless they have a good solid method of testing various hypotheses they could really find themselves with endless investigations, simulations and testing trying to solve this effectively. This is where the problem solver needs a problem solving approach such as KEPNERandFOURIE whereby they would be able to “test” these causes in a matter of minutes. The irony is 95% of the time someone has the correct cause, but because they do not have a common way of testing this hypothesis it can take up to 20 days or more to find the answer, and in the mean time the “workaround” for the client has to hold.

  • Level Three:

This is the ultimate level and this is the stage when the troubleshooter realizes that he/she is dealing with a unique problem and that they are stumped! Now the problem is classified as a NON-TYPICAL first time and unique problem and the problem solvers do not have a clue what could have caused it. This is normally the level Engineering and or the 2nd & 3rd level problem solvers get involved. If the problem solver does not have a trusted and tested method to approach this kind of problem it could take very long to solve this with extensive investigations and tying up resources in endless meetings. This is normally the stage that if the problem could not be solved then Management would decide to rip out the old defective system and buy a now “fresh” system that would do the job required.

So, in summary, the key to successful MIS problem solving lies in the following practices and philosophies:

  • Have the correct problem solving approach for the correct level of problem
  • Use checklist problem solving for typical problems and then eliminate the use of checklists for tier 2 & 3 type of problems.
  • Give MIS professionals their time to “solve” a level/tier 1 problem and if they could not, then declare it a level/tier 2 problem and apply a process approach to solve it.
  • Be ruthless and rigid about this kind of approach…do not allow for exceptions to this practice.




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