Category Archives: Defining Problems

4 Guidelines for Defining Problems

definition
Problem Statements

Our previous post shared perspective on the importance of accurately defining problems when seeking to make improvements. A good problem statement requires some solid pre-work, thoughtful consideration and discussion, and the restraint to avoid speculating before the analysis.

If you’d like to optimize your efforts to effectively define problems and to ultimately solve the “right” problems, you might consider these four guidelines:

  1. Write it down. If the problem is not written, shared, and discussed, all participants will feel comfortable that everyone is on the same page about the problem they are trying to solve. Such will not be the case, and the blissful ignorance about their different expectations will eventually give way to a combination of bewilderment, conflict, frustration, disappointment, and a great deal of inefficiency. Organizations can avoid the problem solving frustration and rework by surfacing right up front any different views of the problem they are trying to solve. The best way to surface and discuss any differences is to write it down and discuss it with all participants, to ensure it is well understood and agreed to.
  2. Include a Quantification of the Waste the Problem is Causing. This step will require some pre-work, because no problem statement is as effective as it should be if it does not indicate why we care. Quantifying the waste makes certain that the organization does not invest scarce resources on something that will not have a significant impact. Every organization has more opportunities for improvement than capacity to execute on the improvements. Quantifying the waste also helps elicit the urgency and support that the project merits.
  3. Be specific about the metric you are using to size the problem. Malcom Forbes once observed that “It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.” The rub is that you will have a hard time determining if your solutions are effective. To avoid this pitfall, your problem statement should incorporate the measurement you expect to move the needle on, the current baseline for that metric, and both the time and the place that your baseline measurement was taken.
  4. Omit Judgments and Opinions about Underlying Causes. Maslow observes that “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” We all have biases, and when we make assumptions about the underlying cause, we bias the process to overlook other possible causes. In theory, this could be a time-saver — if you hit upon the correct root cause. However, in our experience this rarely happens. Making assumptions about the causes almost always makes a problem more difficult to solve instead of easier to solve. This is because if one or more important underlying causes are overlooked by the bias introduced in the problem-statement, the problem will not be solved before the project goes through quite a lot of rework.

If you follow these four guidelines, your project will have a much better chance of arriving at, implementing, and validating an effective solution that produces lasting results.

Defining Problems?

defining problems

Our previous few posts have focused on identifying waste.

After an area of waste or an opportunity for improvement is identified, the next step is to define the specific problem. Few decisions have a greater impact on the likelihood of success of an improvement project than the definition of the problem.

For example, Stephen Covey says that the way we see the problem is the problem. Albert Einstein warns that we cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking with which we created them. The way we define and communicate the problem the team is expected to solve will greatly influence the speed and efficiency with which a team will complete its work, the degree of satisfaction between the team and the project sponsor, and the efficacy with which an organization prioritizes and sequences the problems to devote resources to.

Consider these different approaches to defining the same problematic situation:

  • Order fulfillment is too slow and is costing us a lot of business.
  • Our lost sale rate has increased from an average of 125 per month over the previous six quarters to 190 per month this quarter.
  • Our Order-to-Delivery timeline has increased to 60 days due to a bottleneck in packaging.
  • Profits are down.
  • Sales has missed their target for the past three months.
  • Packaging is too slow due to old equipment.
  • Order-to-Delivery time from the Mid-western plant in Q3 increased by 15 days over the same quarter prior year, and was cited as the cause of 42 lost sales in Q3 impacting revenue by $270,000 in the quarter.

Some of these are statements of fact, while others are judgments. Some are very broad and others are very specific.

They may ALL be valid observations about the same situation, yet the problem solving efforts they would guide would differ greatly in urgency, efficiency, and efficacy. Developing a good problem statement at the start will help you define and lead an improvement project that most efficiently arrives at better results.

In our next post we’ll share four best practices for defining problems.