Tag Archives: how to define problems

Are Questions the Answer to Making Breakthrough Solutions?

questions

An article published in 2020 as part of the Drucker Forum’s “shape the debate” series raised some interesting perspectives about leadership and making breakthrough improvements.

The simple premise shared by consultant and author John Hagel is that “questions” are the answer.

“The most effective leaders of the future will be those who have the most powerful and inspiring questions,” Hagel said. “…and who are willing to acknowledge they don’t have the answers, and that they need and want help in finding the answers. It’s in sharp contrast to the conventional view of leaders as the ones who have the answers to all the questions.”

This view aligns nicely with ours, as we’ve found that posing questions of and involving the people closest to the work is the shortest path to the largest gains.

After all, where do new ideas that lead to lasting solutions come from?

They come from people… that is, if those people are asked.

Here are three different approaches to identifying new ideas and solutions along with some of the questions we might ask the right people while studying the related work:

  1. Classic brainstorming. When studying the current situation and causes does not lead directly to identifying lasting solutions, you need to elicit a number of different ideas from your team by asking questions that stimulate creativity. How can we increase our productivity by 10 percent? What are the most common obstacles causing the process to stall? What is the most difficult aspect…”

    Before you launch into your brainstorming, make sure you have convened a diverse group of people with some knowledge or interest in the problem at hand. Keep in mind that it is always easier for people to “think outside the box” when they come from outside the box.

    The classic rules for brainstorming are:
    • No criticism of ideas—no idea is too crazy
    • Go for quantity of ideas and worry about quality later
    • Brainstorm individually first and then read the ideas out round robin style it is okay to pass
    • Build on positive aspects of other ideas to create new ideas
    • Capture the ideas on flip charts or on large Post-Its that everyone can see and read
  2. Tools such as the Six Thinking Hats and Heuristic Discovery, which systematically change one’s perspective to open-up new possibilities for solving problems.
    • First, state the problem in terms of an opportunity or goal. For example, a keyboard refurbishing operation needed to increase throughput, so they would ask: “How to we double our daily throughput of refurbished keyboards?”
    • Second, create a picture or map of the problem as part of the system, labeling each of the significant components.
    • Third, describe the impact of each component as it impacts the goal. Use a question format. For example:
      • What tools might we use to increase throughput?
      • How can we make sure that people’s skills are sufficient to double the throughput?
      • How can we make sure that people’s speed is sufficient to double the throughput?
      • How can we ensure the workspace layout enhances throughput?
    • Fourth, Prioritize these and generate ideas for solutions to the component problems that are most likely to impact
  3. Imagineering perfection, which helps you surface possibilities to leap past incremental improvements…
    • “What would this process look like if everything were right?”
    • What would it mean if the input we need always arrives on time and exactly the way we need and want it—no delays, no expediting, no rework?
    • What if every step of the work process were to go exactly as it should with no waste, no rework?
    • What if our work produced exactly what the customer needs, on time, exactly as they require it all the time? What would this look like?
    • What exactly does the customer need for perfection?

4 Steps for Effectively Defining Problems

problem2Our previous two posts have shared fundamentals about the importance of taking the right approach to defining problems. Simply stated, a good problem statement requires some solid pre-work, thoughtful consideration and discussion, and the restraint to avoid speculating before the analysis.

Here are four basic guidelines for problem definition that will greatly improve the chances the right problem will get solved for good.

  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. However, 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.
  2. Include a Quantification of the Waste the Problem is Causing… this, of course, will require some pre-work as noted above. Quantifying the waste makes certain that the organization does not invest scarce resources on something that will not have a significant impact. It also helps elicit the urgency and support that the project merits.
  3. Be specific about the metric used to size the problem… Malcolm 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… Several previous posts stressed the importance of avoiding bias. 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. You might also like to read the full article, which includes a number of specific examples supporting some of the recommended steps.

Read the full article… | Comment…

What’s the Problem Part 2: Defining

defineproblems2Continuing our discussion on the impact problem definition can have on our continuous improvement effort, 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. So… developing a good problem statement at the start will help define and lead an improvement project that most efficiently arrives at better results.

But what’s the BEST approach?

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What’s the Problem?

problem2In one of our recent newsletters we discussed the importance of gathering well-grounded knowledge about current situations and taking steps to avoid bias when involved in Improvement initiatives.

Taking a deeper look at the improvement process, it is also critically-important to take the right approach to defining problems.   Consider that the approaches to problem definition can vary significantly, and can impact both a project team’s behavior and results in many ways, including  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.

Over the next few posts we’ll delve further into the best ways to define problems, and also share four key guidelines that can help identify the best approach.

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