Standard Work for Solving Crossword Puzzles

By Jon Miller Updated on June 23rd, 2019

Lately I have been having fun solving daily crossword puzzles with my family. By reflecting on both mistakes and successful approaches, I have arrived at a strategy, even something like standard work, for solving crossword puzzles.

Step 1: Plan

Pinpoint the problem. As with any type of problem-solving, clearly understanding the nature of the problem is step one. This requires careful reading of the hints and getting a sense for the style and tendencies of the day’s crossword puzzle designer.

Avoid pun-ishment. Spot the crossword hints with the “?” at the end. Sometimes these are simply questions such as “Reply to, Are you OK?” But often the question mark signals a trick, wordplay or a stretched meaning. For example one might think the answer to this week’s WSJ crossword hint “Supreme being?” might be GOD but the correct answer was DIANAROSS of the musical group The Supremes. Keep in mind that crossword designers will sneak puns in with no “?” in the hints as warning.

Know what you don’t know. Often crosswords include names of people, places, historical events etc. that we either know or don’t know. I draw a blank in pop culture, sports and entertainment references for the 1994 – 2014 period. This is where getting help from a cross-functional team can be useful. then we experiment through zones of uncertainty just like we do in continuous improvement.

Detect double meanings. Some hints take advantage of English homonyms. If the hint began with “Pan” for example, this could mean a Greek god, to criticize, a cooking utensil, low-lying land, a preposition meaning ‘many’, or the last name of Peter the boy who never grew up. Jumping to the answer without reflecting on possible double meanings is sure way to build solutions on false assumptions.

Step 2: Do

Start solving. Sometimes the solution is obvious and we fix the problem without a full root cause analysis. As with any type of problem-solving, the first step is to scan through the hints and find any hints we have seen before, problems we have faced and solved in the past, or factual answers that you know for certain. Even on a good day, this will only get you so far.

Find the free letters. With the exception of a few irregular words, plural English words in in “s”. Crossword hints such as “Types of fabric…” give us a free letter “s” that we can put an in the box at the end of the word, even if we haven’t guessed the full word. The same  is true of hints for hints with verbs in the past tense, as the answer word often ends in “d” or “n”.

Base guesses on the base rate. A common cognitive bias in data-driven problem solving is the base rate fallacy. When we neglect the base rate, we assume that information about specific conditions is more important than information about more broadly-based, general conditions. When hearing that most car accidents happen within 5 miles of our home (specific condition), we may wonder why accidents happen so early on our trips, when in fact these happen because most of our driving happens near our homes (base rate). Knowing that the letters “aeoiudhlrst” occur most frequently in English help us to expect these more often, regardless of the puzzle we are solving. Likewise, there are few English words starting with “k” and other base rate behaviors of English language spelling.

Cross-check the crowded words. Some people prefer to work on crosswords starting at hint #1 and going in sequence. Some like to do the Across words first, others the Down words. One strategy that works is to cross-reference the guesses for sections of the puzzle with several words of three to five letters in length. One five-letter across word can be used to test several down words, or vice-versa. In practical problem solving, this is akin to cross-checking our data by stratifying it in multiple ways.

Speed your way to a sixty percent solution. While it may feel great to be right in guessing the entire word, it can be more effective to fill in 60% of many words across as much of the crossword puzzle as possible. After a point, the answers become obvious, and a chain reaction happens when adding one more correct letter triggers more solutions. We see the same thing in practical problem solving and kaizen, when fiddling with imperfect and partial solutions. Rapid feedback from partially successful experiments gives us more insight than sophisticated solutions that come at a delay.

Step 3: Check

Midway through the crossword, or when stuck…

Ferret out false assumptions. A person can have a lot of fun guessing, inventing possible solutions and combinations of words. Often a solution seems to work. for a long time, until we get to a dead end and realize we need to erase two or three words and retrace our steps. To solve a complete puzzle, always be prepared to be wrong, even if it means erasing several wrong guesses that you are fond of.

What is the theme? Many crosswords have a theme. Sometimes it is a trick, such as missing letters or items spelled backwards. Where is the designer of the puzzle wanting your mind to go? This becomes useful partway through solving the crossword, after solving one or two hints that reveal the meaning of the theme of the day’s puzzle and unlock a few stubborn hints. While there is no “designer” behind practical problems that we solve, there is often a context or broader situation that we can see only after solving it, and this can be useful to ponder during.

Say your ABCs. In English there are only 26 possible letters that could go into any box in the crossword puzzle. Try the most popular 11 “base rate” letters first. Leave the least common letters or least likely letter clusters until last. It doesn’t take long as one might think to try all reasonable combinations to fill a three-letter gap in a word. When we are at the limits of our knowledge, sometimes we must fill in the gaps through high volume, brute force trial and error.

Step 4: Act

Accumulate knowledge broadly. My three years of French from university has never been more useful. My vocabulary in Greek, Latin and Spanish gets slowly better with each crossword. I find myself looking up obscure facts of history, geography, zoology, etc. after every crossword. As we say in continuous improvement, we solve problems mainly to develop people, not for the solution.

Work as a team. Different people bring different backgrounds and perspectives. It is easier and more fun to solve crosswords with my family.


Innovation and invention are often just a matter of framing the problem correctly and reusing or combining existing knowledge in creative new ways. Solving crossword puzzles engages our creativity. Following a standards process enables us to be creative, avoiding common mistakes such as missing double-meanings and foreign-language references, struggling to build a puzzle based on one or more bad assumptions, and even time wasted searching for a full solutions when it will come from the process of eliminating options.

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