Defining the Problem

Slow is Good

Taking a structured approach to solving problems is essential to achieving effective solutions, but even when organisations have embraced one of the many available structured methods they often fail to achieve effective solutions because they try to move too quickly through the process.

Moving too quickly has negative impacts at all stages of problem solving, but the most negative impact is at the very start of the problem solving process, because this is the phase where we try to fully understand or define the problem.

As I mentor teams through the problem solving process, I see many problem solvers confuse describing the problem with defining the problem. In other words, they use descriptive language, often coupled with excessive wording, to generate a description of the problem, but without any hard facts or data.

This general description is acceptable when a problem first emerges, as the available data is limited at this time, but the problem solving teams first task is to figure out what additional facts and data are required to fully and properly understand the problem.

When facts and data have been gathered, a true definition of the problem can be articulated, using clear, concise language.

Take the time to Define

So why do teams tend to develop problem descriptions rather than problem definitions?

Because it takes much more time to generate a problem definition. The team must apply critical thinking to determine what facts and data are needed to characterise the problem. These facts and data might be readily available, but in my experience the most relevant data is not readily available and must instead be gathered through a phase of measurement, interview, and testing.

This process is slow.

What’s the rush?

It’s important now to recognise the human behaviour associated with problems. Problems impact the business and so they trigger an urgency reflex (you may recognise some of these reactions!):

“We must resolve this issue as soon as possible.”

“Senior Management want answers yesterday!”

“We are the experts so we must find answers quickly.”

This urgency reflex, coupled with the brains tendency to use available information and experience to predict patterns, drives even experienced problem solvers to take the shortcut to problem description, bypassing the tedious phase of gathering facts and data in favour of having fast answers.

The Impact

When this happens, the team is now working on a poorly understood problem, and all evaluations and decisions that follow will be based on this limited knowledge. When the problem is not well understood, the potential causes cannot be well understood

When potential causes are not well understood, incorrect solutions will be identified and implemented.

When incorrect solutions are implemented, it is no surprise that the problem is not resolved, or only partially resolved, and so it is likely to reoccur in some form.

By rushing through the problem definition phase we have essentially charged down the wrong path, wasting time and effort, at the end of which we have the same problem we had at the start. The time we attempted to save at the start we have now wasted several times over, not to mention the possible capital/material wasted in the process.

The Solution

So what can we do to prevent this from happening?

I believe that the urgency reflex can be resolved through strong leadership. Good leaders will recognise the importance of taking the time necessary to do valuable work, and will empower teams to describe how they intend to define the problem, and allow them the time to do this work correctly, so that they can then proceed to work on solving the right problem.

In an organisation where structured problem solving is well understood, moving as fast as the process allows towards the correct solution is recognised as the most efficient and effective way to solve problems.

If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

Albert Einstein

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