Mei 04, 2011

Problem Solving Series #3 - Define the Problem

I am going to open with an interesting quote from Albert Einstein:

"No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."

It is important to first understand the problem at a higher level than the problem itself.

Einstein said if he was given an hour (sixty minutes) to solve a problem, he will spend fifty five minutes understanding and defining the problem and only five minutes to solve it. Yes. Problem definition is that important.

How does one go about defining his or her problem? Here are three steps of problem definition: 

1. Find out what or where we are feeling our pain, and how often
It is important to note that sometimes we do not frame this step properly. For example, a 'high cost' can erratically be framed as the 'pain', while in reality the actual 'pain' was our incapability to turn our cost into revenue. In other words, our real 'pain' is actually due to 'low revenue / low sales per cost unit'. As a result, companies that frame their problem as 'high cost' begin to cut cost, which often result in a decrease in quality or a decrease in future capital investment needed for them to survive and compete.

Several things to do to avoid this:
a. Challenge assumptions and personal beliefs.
b. Be careful of language assumption.
c. Change our perceptions of the problem to make sure we get the real objective. For example, do we want to increase sales, or do we want to make our salespeople work harder (make more calls, visits, etc).

2. Find out the obvious / visible impact of this problem to our value / our business

We can easily find this out from a defined problem in step 1. If we cannot understand the economic, cultural, or value impact of the problem, then perhaps we need to re-frame (go back to step 1) or move on to another problem.

For example: If many people come in late in the morning, what is the obvious impact to the organization? Most likely none. Therefore, stating the problem as 'many people come in late', and therefore working on solving that, will not gain us anything. In this case we need to dig deeper, either bringing up productivity issue or lack of work for the people issue.

3. Find out who is impacted a.k.a. the stakeholders

This is where we start developing an understanding of who we will be working with in solving this problem. We cannot solve a problem if we do not get all impacted parties together, communicate well among them, to solve it. Ask any troubled married couple for proof.

Once we get these elements, we can then generate a ready-to-cook problem definition.

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