It can be tough to figure out where to start in the quest to understand problems. How can we develop the ability to move ahead?

By developing clear thinking. However, these four words don’t help anyone acquire that skill.

But we’re not at ground zero. If you went to college or learned a trade, you got “knowledge” skills in a specific field. Learning to generalize those skills so that you can use them in other aspects of your life is a key aspect of learning to think more clearly.

How can each of us improve our thinking skills (our discernment)? I have boiled this down to seven steps. All of us who are working for a living are already doing all seven, but some or most of us could benefit from some structured practice. After practice, you will be ahead of the game when a problem comes up. Even when totally out of your technical specialty, you will be able to help others ask better questions. This seven-step method is a master key to clear thinking.

Being human is the first step. What is special about humans? We can create or modify our culture and environment. But in order to do so, we have to remain open-minded and ready to learn new things. We can choose to become one of those humans who continues to learn new ways of working, living and learning. We can refuse to settle for becoming a mere collector of new “factoids.” We can cultivate curiosity!

Critical thinking is the second step. I’ve discussed this at length in my some of by blogs on Here, I will simply state that people can’t learn critical thinking by being admonished to do it. You have to practice seeing a bigger picture. The one other point I want to make is that critical thinking is NOT the same as logic. In logic we accept the premise that is “given.” In critical thinking, we do the opposite. We question the context. Critical thinking is about making sure that you are solving the RIGHT problem. Once again, we all do this on occasion. We need practice and discipline to make it a habit.

The third step is building new networks of associations in our minds. New mental connections fertilize new ideas, some of which lead to new physical things. I call this rational thinking because rational contains the word ratio, and we build associations by comparing pairs, or trios, of things with each other. This is HOW we build association networks.


constructing competence method
Fig. 1. The red (downward-pointing) triangle emphasizes the three practice, or hab-it-driven, steps of the constructing competence method, while the green (upward-pointing) triangle emphasizes the three action steps of the constructing competence method.


In failure analysis of physical objects, seeking out a reference “thing,” or a description of a “reference thing” from a company record or a publication, is a good way to compare (and contrast) and thus build new associations. This type of “rational” thinking works hand-in-hand with creative thinking. All those neural connections that result from the comparing sometimes light up in new combination. That is creativity at work, and that is step four. See how natural this process is?

If you are the one who is going to be the clear-thinking individual who figures out how things go wrong, you will need to take some time to simply sit (or walk) and let the pieces of the puzzle turn around different ways in your mind. This is a good way for many people to make sure they didn’t overlook an important factor in understanding the situation. This is step five. This is a good excuse to tell your boss that you are working even if it looks like you are doing nothing. Make it a habit to stop and con-template complexity.

Step six is making the decisions about which facts are most reliable and relevant and how to organize and validate the findings of the investigation. I call this calibrating your confidence. Step seven, the last step, is communicating capably with the people who need the information.

All seven steps are described in great detail, specifically as they relate to gaining competence in failure analysis, in my new book. Constructing Competence in Failure Analysis: A Technical and Philosophical Guide, published by Koho Pono Press, will be available in the next few months. If you would like to be notified when it’s available, which will be in many countries via print on demand, please contact me at I’d love to hear from you.

This will be my last “Technical Talk” column with Industrial Heating. I started contributing blogs in 2008 when my colleague Dale Poteet asked me to join his consulting consortium. It’s been a pleasure to be part of this community. At one point I found out I had a small fan club within the IH family. A few times I even met a reader in person at some technical event, and they told me they liked the blog. Please keep in touch! I really enjoy hearing from readers.