Albert Einstein, one of the greatest problem solvers of all time, said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” Smart words, Mr. Einstein.
Problems and needs are all around us. Analysis is important to ensuring we are developing appropriate solutions. When considering problems or needs in an organization it’s helpful to use a combination of data, intuition, and experience to pinpoint the problem.
It’s also helpful to utilize the cause and effect analysis approach. Make sure you are knocking on the right door, asking and answering the right questions, and solving the right problem. Typically the workflow of this analysis includes these items:
1. Describe the Need
Describing the need in general terms provides a context for the problem. It helps answer questions about who is involved, what the internal and external factors may be, why solving it is important, what the benefit or goal is and how to measure it, what value could be achieved, and how it aligns with and supports the business strategy.
2. Isolate the Problem
This may require some tools like a fishbone diagram or the “Five Whys” exercise. It’s an opportunity to get much more specific with the problem, answering questions like:
- What has been done to solve the problem already?
- What requirements must be met by the solution?
- Are there any constraints tied to the solutions?
- If we solve the problem, what is the impact?
- How will solutions be evaluated and success measured?
Based on the results of this analysis, you may then explore an assortment of other data to validate the problem.
This may include: user research, market and competitor research, system or process data, qualitative interviews of leadership or culture, and past data tied to how the problem has been addressed in the past. As a part of the output of this analysis, you can formulate a problem statement.
3. Construct the Problem Statement
A problem statement provides a description of the issues, which assists in aligning expectations with key stakeholders. It unifies the team around the purpose.
4. Be Aware of Limitations
Once you’ve discovered the needs and identified the problem, it is important to consider some of the limitations with cause and effect methods. These include:
- Do not rely on a single instance of the problem to bind the effect to a cause. Consider multiple data points.
Be careful of confirmation bias when gathering data – it is easy to jump to conclusions before all the data are gathered and analyzed.
- Be careful not to depend on just your current knowledge to draw conclusions. Explore all possible causes and don’t make the mistake of making the problem fit inside your understanding of the issue. Problem solvers tend to collect evidence about problems they understand; therefore, the evidence they search for confirms their existing bias. They disregard, or perhaps don’t even see, evidence that doesn’t fit their mental model (that is, a model based on their experience).
- Remember W. Edwards Deming’s 85/15 rule that says 85% of the problems in any operation are within the system and are management’s responsibility, while only 15% lie with the worker.
In broad terms, a problem is an obstacle that stands in the way of achieving a desired goal to create value; it is the difference between the current state (where you are now) and the future state (where you want to go).
At Maestro, we hear problems such as “sales representatives are underperforming” and “our revenue numbers are off.”
However, after going through these key steps to identify the true problem, we may discover that in actuality the sales team’s technology does not enable improved performance or sales managers have not been given the right tools to hold the sales staff accountable for revenue goals.
Needs analysis and problem identification are the early stages in the process of exploration and discovery. It establishes the baseline of the what and the why behind the client’s needs. The next post in this series will discuss how to attack the requirements once the problem has been defined.
Resources Paradies, Under Scrutiny, April 2010, Quality Progress, April 2010, pp. 33 - 37 Winston, Total Quality Management, 1999
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