Critical thinking and problem solving are perennially cited among the most valued skills in organizations. As digitization has replaced people throughout the modern workplace, demand for specific technical skills and occupations—indeed whole industries—rises and falls with ever increasing speed. Yet critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities remain indispensable and sought-after employee competencies, decade-after-decade. These are the high-value capabilities that span time, geography and industry.

In a series of studies, researchers found that people who were strong on either intelligence or critical thinking experienced fewer negative events in life: but critical thinkers did better. While intelligence is heavily tied to genetics and is problematic to teach; critical thinking can be taught and learned. Good critical thinking is a skill that persists over time and is characterized by many of the attributes that lead to success.

Good critical thinkers are able to identify what information is significant, moving them towards greater understanding. In a world awash with data, critical thinking helps us focus on relevant information, possible connections and logical actions to take. When something goes wrong, critical thinkers pose the questions that lead to the best path forward. 

The Impact of Critical Thinking Skills in an Organization

Without active critical thinking skills, problems go unresolved; decisions are made based on limited information; and risks and opportunities are ignored. Critical thinkers can remove uncertainty when the path ahead is unclear and establish priorities for effective action. They move from observing the effect of a problem to analyzing and understanding its cause. A foundation of critical thinking establishes the thinking patterns needed to set the best course of action and evaluate any threats or opportunities that could lie ahead.

The customer is the driving force in today’s organizations. Tech companies invest heavily in developing problem-solving skills; to improve customer service, accelerate the time to resolution and reduce service costs. A structured approach to handling problems and incidents eliminates trial and error behavior and results in consistent high quality, accelerated root cause analysis.

Manufacturers drive out waste by using critical thinking to analyze processes and choose the best actions for maximizing value to the customer. In regulated industries like Pharmaceuticals, advanced problem solvers ensure that quality is maintained and document their solutions for the FDA with logic and relevant data.  

Business environments are changing frequently, especially with the fusion of IT and technology in virtually everything we do. The increased complexity comes from interdependencies between systems and processes creating problems never occurred before. To solve a problem that was never previously confronted and determine the cause fast, a foundation of critical thinking skills helps problem solvers to separate complex problems into a set of smaller and more manageable challenges. Each can be addressed effectively, rapidly and concurrently.

We want to help your organization build a strong foundation for critical thinking skills. In our NEW Critical Thinking Toolkit, we’ve provided some resources to help you analyze and evaluate the importance of these skills in the workforce.

 “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”


Critical Thinking Skills in Everyday Life

Critical thinking skills can be learned and improved. People who have learned processes to improve problem solving and decision making in the workplace are more confident about handling important issues in their own lives. Belief and action result from questioning and logical thought.

Decisions are made based on the best-balanced choice. For example, uncertainty is reduced in buying a new home when priorities are set for price, location, design, etc. This helps buyers weigh choices against their personal priorities.

When something goes wrong, critical thinkers resist responding by placing blame; and first look for cause based on relevant information. Critical thinkers communicate effectively and are able to explain what is going on, what caused a problem and why they made a decision. This helps others think through decisions and solutions and builds support through understanding. Critical thinkers are the people others turn to for clarity and help finding the way forward.

Critical Thinking Skills in the Workplace

Critical thinking can be defined as the ability to exercise sound reasoning and analytical thinking, using knowledge, facts and data to resolve issues. 

Their value in the workplace is evident in a wide range of situations:

  • Problem solving and decision making. Rapid changes in the workplace require delegating decision making and problem solving farther and farther down the organization. This is coupled with a deluge in the data available to guide these actions. Among today's workers, the critical thinking skills for data analysis, complex problem solving, and teamwork are in high demand and short supply.
  • Problem prevention. Identifying potential problems and planning preventive and contingent actions require good, solid analytical thinking. Within heavily regulated industries or whenever problems create a high level of risk, problem prevention is essential to doing business.
  • Good teamwork. Teamwork is not automatic; but it is the way work gets done today. Teams must function as productive units despite potential roadblocks like geographic and time distances or varying job functions and priorities. Team members need critical thinking skills for effective communication, conflict resolution, decision making, problem solving and self-management.
  • Empowerment and flexible thinking. For people to manage their own work and do it effectively, they benefit by using a structured thought process and valid input to figure out effective solutions. These critical thinkers look for evidence to support their thinking and are less prone to jump to the cause of a problem without evidence. By effectively analyzing problems and decisions, critical thinkers are able to find solutions and make decisions backed up by sound reasoning and analysis.

“The computer on our shoulders is the most important computer we will ever have.”

Dr. Benjamin Tregoe, co-founder, Kepner-Tregoe

Why then, don’t we invest more in this computer – the one we are born with?

How Teams Can Improve Through Critical Thinking

Critical thinking skills are needed across the organization, not in only one department. At Kepner-Tregoe, we work often with the following teams and see the positive impact that critical thinking can achieve.

Operations: Having a framework for solving operational problems helps organizations ensure that equipment and processes run at peak efficiency and product quality fulfills customer requirements. By targeting and resolving challenging manufacturing problems through critical thinking, companies improve product quality, asset leverage, employee productivity and operational results.

IT Service Management (ITSM): Effective problem solving and incident management are at the heart of effective IT Service Management. A structured approach to critical thinking helps organizations to measurably lower costs, improve IT stability and provide a better customer experience.

Training:  Improving critical thinking empowers individuals to show unprecedented improvements in productivity, increased efficiency as well as greater customer satisfaction. A structured approach to critical thinking supports continuous improvement and arms people with intellectual tools that make an impact back on the job.

Kepner-Tregoe’s Critical Thinking Processes

Critical thinking involves four basic patterns of human thought that are reflected in four questions: What is going on? Why did this happen? What course of action should we take? What lies ahead? People can improve their ability to think critically with effective processes that strengthen this thought process.

  • Problem Analysis is an approach to finding out why something happened and figuring out solutions to complex problems. Problem analysis is structured root cause analysis (RCA) that improves the way data is used and focuses problem solving to accelerate finding cause.
  • Decision Analysis answers the question, what course of action should we take, with a process that structures decision making to help make the best balanced choice. This approach aligns tough decisions with key priorities and demonstrates the logic behind a decision.
  • Situation Appraisal is an analytic process that answers the question, what is going on? It brings clarity to confusion or uncertainty by helping to identify high priority issues and plan for their resolution. 
  • Potential Problem/Opportunity Analysis addresses the question, what lies ahead? The process is used to understand and proactively manage risks and opportunities.  By analyzing and planning for risk, problems can be avoided and if something does go wrong, a plan is in place to respond quickly and minimize damage and costs. Opportunity analysis looks ahead to consider how best to respond when opportunities arise.
Learn more about the processes that improve critical thinking. In our NEW Critical Thinking Toolkit, we’ve provided some resources to help you analyze and evaluate the importance of these skills in the workforce.