Problem Solving: Learn to Think like an Engineer

PROBLEM #19: I Need an Approach to Solve Problems as They Arise.

Problem SolvingWe face PROBLEMs and issues every single day. Anyone who says they have no problems is just straight-up lying. Where we as people differ is our approach to addressing those issues/problems. Some problems may work themselves out in time. Others need more involvement from us – they don’t just go away. If you’ve never looked at your life and problems objectively – Now is the time.


I’ve heard people say, “Engineers think differently”. I believe this to be true. Maybe sometimes this is intended to be a dig, but it also can be an advantage. We do have methods and approaches to solve problems. I’ve decided to let you in on my method to solving problems.


Imagine you discovered that your car is getting close to 23mpg, but the manufacture claims you should be getting 35mpg. Now I don’t know about you, but to me this is a PROBLEM. Let’s think through this problem, and hopefully arrive at a reasonable SOLUTION using 4 simple steps.


STEP #1: Define the problem.

“This is often the most difficult step.”

You may think – I just did – I’m not getting the gas mileage the manufacture claims I should be getting – What is he talking about? Let me explain. You need to verify both your’s and the manufacturer’s claims. Once you’ve verified that you are indeed getting much less gas mileage than you should, you need to verify that the measurements (data) you’ve taken (around town, highway only, some combination of the two) match the manufacturer’s testing.

For instance: The manufacturer claims your model car should get 35mpg on the highway. You also obtain your data (18mpg) while driving on the highway. Doing this research accomplishes a few things. It can eliminate any inconsistencies in your data and claims vs the manufacturer’s. It also assures you that there is indeed an issue that you can solve. The end goal would be to get, as close to, or the same gas mileage as the manufacturer claims.

The better the definition of a specific problem – the easier it will be to solve it. This is often the most difficult step.

STEP #2: Define the specific variables.

what is a variable

You may ask what is a variable? Simply put: a variable is anything that when changed will alter the outcome. For example, in our gas mileage problem, if your tire pressure changes, your gas mileage will also change. Tire pressure is a variable. Are you driving the same speed as in the manufacturer’s testing? Speed is a variable. Has your car’s engine recently been serviced, and is it operating in an optimum capacity? Your car engine and it’s condition is a variable. There are also other variables that could affect gas mileage: extra weight, weather, gasoline quality, aerodynamics, etc.

This step involves thinking through all the things that could affect the outcome – no matter how trivial they may seem. Once you’ve made a list of the variables (sometimes it does help to write it down), we can continue on to the next step.

STEP #3: Simplify by Isolating and Eliminating Variables.

What is 764 -479? Quick, in your head . . . an engineer might look at that problem and simplify it to 764-500. Can you do that? It’s easier/simpler, right? Answer: 264. Not so fast, we aren’t done yet. The original number was 479 not 500. We have to add back the difference between 500 and 479. Which is? . . . 500-480+1=21  Are you starting to get the hang of this? So to finish, 264+21=285.  So the original problem: 764-479=285

The trick is to see how to simplify a problem, and to not get bogged down with all the extra information that is not relevant. Also, you may not be able to even come up with a solution without breaking it down into simpler steps. In our mpg scenario, it will be difficult to observe every variable we’ve listed above.

Trying to decide how much relevance should be placed on each variable can also be difficult. For instance: the gasoline quality is probably something that you cannot control – as long as you use the correct octane level. This variable we can eliminate. Unless you have a bumper hanging on by a single bolt or a door panel falling off, your aerodynamics probably have not changed much from when you purchased the car. Eliminate this variable.

Once you’ve gone down through the list of variables, you should be able to eliminate most of the variables. Take the two or three variables that you think will affect the situation the most to the next step. Let’s assume you’ve eliminated all the variables except tire pressure, driving speed, and engine condition.


STEP #4: Change a variable and observe the outcome.

Usually problems can be solved by changing only a few things (variables) in the situation or scenario. If you realize that your tires are under-inflated, by all means – inflate them properly. This should add 2-3 mpg.

If your normal highway driving speed is 73 mph or higher, try backing your speed down to 65 mph for a certain period of time. This may add 5-6 mpg. There is a great mpg calculator to check out also.

Check your engine to make sure your plugs are not fouled. This can also add a few mpg. If you have not had your oil changed recently, it may be time to get it done.

think about a solution

After making the above adjustments, you should be able to gain around 11 mpg. This puts your new gas mileage at 34 mpg. Almost exactly what the manufacturer claims! Problem solved – maintain correct tire pressure, slow down, and keep your engine running smoothly.


light bulb You may read through the above scenario and think, “I could have told you that. I knew those were the main factors in getting better gas mileage.”

The point here was not the result – the point of the scenario was the method. If you can learn to apply these steps to other problems in life, it can make solutions more visible. Think back to the math problem we went over earlier. I can see that problem, and go through the steps I outlined above – in my head. I have learned to apply these steps quickly – depending on the complexity of the problem.

It becomes a way of thinking.

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