Matt's Articles

What is the problem you are trying to solve

What is the problem you are trying to solve? This is the question that was often asked of me when I first began working on large change projects as a Black Belt. I like it because it is one of those simple questions that can be asked multiple times. It deepens our understanding of our work and helps us question if our actions are carrying us to a worthwhile goal. It also sets the foundation for establishing a goal, which I discussed last month. In establishing a change initiative we should think both about a goal and about a problem statement. Making the statement clear and broadly understood builds urgency and energy around the change initiative and increases the likelihood of success. There is plenty of good material on the internet for writing problem statements, so I won’t discuss that here. Instead, I will share some common issues.

What is the problem you are trying to solve? The reason why I hear this question so often is that as humans, we tend to be solution oriented. In practice, we start with a solution in mind and go looking for a problem that can solve it. You’ve seen this before. It’s the new automation equipment that we think will be so cool. It’s the new software program that will fix every problem. AIBlockchain and the internet of things (IOT) will fix everything! Technology has and will continue to solve many problems for us, but we will only be successful in applying new technologies by understanding the problem deeply. What problems do we have that AI can fix? Certainly not every problem can be fixed this way and we risk wasting a lot of time directing an interesting solution to the wrong problem.

Problem statements should be interesting. Who wants to fix a boring problem? If you want to get people engaged and excited about helping resolve an issue, frame the problem in an exciting way. For example:

The orders that arrive to distribution after 4pm miss the last truck out for the day.

Yes, that is a problem, but ho hum… There are many more interesting problems running through my head: my child is flunking math, a tree fell on my fence, the dog keeps having accidents in the house. My problems are more interesting than your shipping issue. Like it or not, this is how we all think. Let’s try to make this interesting:

A longtime customer who helped us grow this company typically places orders after 4pm and expects them to be delivered the next day. For the last 3 months we have missed this expectation and they told our sales representative that they are considering another supplier.

And for the “Burning Platform” component of this problem:

If we lose this customer it will impact year end bonuses and possibly even jobs.

Okay, that got my attention! Admittedly, I added narrative to the basic problem statement and that’s the point. I am no longer mentally consumed with the dog or the fence. The other critique of my example is that not every problem is a risk to someone’s employment. Therefore, we should be careful not to risk our credibility by embellishing the problem. Still, every problem causes some kind of pain. We should make this clear for the people we need to help us resolve the problem. Remember, this is an initiative and you need to create urgency. An interesting problem statement is more likely to grab attention.

The last point I would like to make regarding problem statements is that they do not require readily available solutions. I often see problems like “we don’t have training,” “our ordering system is out of date,” “our processes are manual.” Whether we realize it or not, these statements presuppose solutions. Innovative solutions come from creative and open minded approaches. The team must be able to explain why something is a problem. Plenty of successful companies operate with old systems. Simple, manual processes can be very effective. I can always find someone that will counter and say, “but we do have training!” When we think in terms of the solution we assume that we have the appropriate depth of knowledge and understanding of the problem. We risk missing effective avenues to solve the problem and we alienate people that may not see the same problem. Simply asking “why is this a problem?” or “how do I know that this is a problem?” will challenge the depth of understanding and alignment with the team. If the dog makes a mess on the floor I don’t say that the problem is lack of training or an automated “Time to Go for a Walk Sensor System” (patent pending). I say messes of this kind are not sanitary for indoors and create an unpleasant odor. This is a problem that we should explore and solve. Training may be one of many solutions. This mindset will keep us open to many possible solutions and allow us to be inclusive of different views on the best resolution for the issue.

A good problem statement will set an initiative off on the right track. It has long been shown that humans are loss averse. Framing the issue as a valuable problem to solve is the best strategy to motivate people and set your change initiative off right.