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Why Effective Problem Solving Begins With a Good Problem Statement

by Dave LaHote
January 7, 2015

Why Effective Problem Solving Begins With a Good Problem Statement

by Dave LaHote
January 7, 2015 | Comments (10)

“A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.”

-Charles Kettering, Head of Research at General Motors from 1920-1947. 

 

“Hey everybody, let’s 'A3'!"  

Everyone is doing it and certainly no other tool in the lean toolbox epitomizes the scientific method or PDCA way of thinking more than A3 for problem solving. We know that a problem solving A3 is a representation of the A3 thinking process applied to a specific problem. My observation from decades of doing A3s is that one of the biggest challenges in A3 thinking is deciding exactly what the problem is that we are trying to solve and boiling that problem down to a good problem statement.

Let’s solve world peace or let’s state our predetermined solution as a problem, as in “we need to develop a problem solving culture” or “the problem is we need the new software upgrade.” These are two of the most common issues I see. 

Another is a problem statement that is so broad that it can’t be reasonably measured or observed, as in “we have too many errors in our patient record files.” A good problem statement in its simplest form is a clear statement of the difference between our target condition and our actual condition stated in observable and measureable terms. For example, something like “30% of patient immunization records are missing at least one entry” or better, narrower, and more specific yet: “10% of patient immunization records are missing the date of birth.”

The smaller the scope and the more specific the description of the gap between current and target/standard, the easier it will be to get to root cause and solve the problem. Getting from the broad and unspecific “we have too many errors in our patient records” to the more specific “10% of patient immunization records are missing the date of birth” allows us to get to the root cause of why DOB is missing. This helps us implement a countermeasure to that specific root cause and run the experiment to see if it works (remember, nothing ever goes according to plan) and then adjust based on what we learn. Eliminating the 10% DOB omission problem helps us to make progress against the broader issue of omissions and errors in patient records.

So, what’s the take away from all of this? When we write our problem statements, let’s try to be more specific. In my years of problem solving I don’t ever remember anyone complaining that we were working on a problem that had been scoped too narrowly. If you’re feeling stuck, try to think: What is the current condition versus the target or standard in observable and measureable terms? Get the problem stated well and you’ll have it half solved. State your problem in such a way that your team members can understand and articulate it in the same terms, and you may be three quarters of the way there.

What difficulties do you experience in creating problem statements?

 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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10 Comments | Post a Comment
Emmanuel Jallas January 07, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Thank you Dave for this post. A trainee of mine has been misled by the way her company measures it's production, stoppages and so on. She was asked to fix a problem of "by passed products", because the area missed production due to stop time. She was leaded to increase the output of production by fixing problems. In fact the workshop actually produces more than the customer demand. Then the gap to close is not time actually productive (150h/w) vs open time (168 h/w) but an efficiency problem, say open time is 168 hours instead of 80 hours per week. This is the flaws of OEE versus bekidouritsu. (Readers can check Kaizen Express pp 62-65 to learn more about this.) So stating problems accurately needs to use accurate KPIs

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Anne Frewin January 07, 2015
3 People AGREE with this comment

We've had the typical trouble of scope in our organization.  About 18 months ago we had this aha and revamped our training to make the problem statement in the A3 a simple word statement describing the visual current conditions displayed.  We went on to further instruct that the problem statement was an inverse of the target statement - and vice versa.  This has helped immensely in scoping the problem statement and making it specific, measurable, accurate, relevant, and timely (SMART).   Root cause analysis is much more direct and focused as a result as well.

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Dave LaHote January 07, 2015
4 People AGREE with this reply

Sounds as if you have made great progress against the "world peace" scope problem. I advise people that if you are not dealing with a problem that the people who do the work can't get their arms around and solve in a few days you are still scoping the problem too large. It is great that you are breaking large issues into small defineable bits.

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Mark Graban January 07, 2015
5 People AGREE with this comment

I often hear healthcare leaders say, "We are really good at problem solving," but what they mean is "We are really good at jumping to solutions."

Problem statements, for small Kaizen improvements or Rapid Improvement Events or A3s, are far too often just a solution statement. Or, they'll say, "The problem is the lack of a ______" which is just another way of stating a solution.

It's good to quantify a statement like “10% of patient immunization records are missing the date of birth." That way, we are working with facts instead of guesses, opinions, or assumptions. A good habit I learned from Pascal Dennis and his team is to quantify the GAP... it's currently 10% of records that are missing, it should be 0%. It might be obvious in some cases what the "should be" level of performance should be, but it's not always obvious, so it's good to state it, I think.

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Dave LaHote January 07, 2015
2 People AGREE with this reply

Great observations Mark. The phrasing of the problem in the negative always means the answer is the inverse which is just another way to state a solution as the problem. In a world so solution focused it is not surprising that deeply understanding an issue and it's root cause feels so foreign.

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Daniel Jones January 07, 2015
6 People AGREE with this comment
The ability to frame problems correctly does not just reflect practice in problem solving, it reflects the experience of their leaders, at every level. If leaders are not willing to face up to problems, if they are somewhat blind in seeing and finding the underlying problems and are not good at helping to frame the problem they give to their subordinates then we should not be surprised if people end up solving the wrong problems or jumping to solutions. Ironically it is only by coaching subordinates in framing and solving their immediate problems that leaders learn to see the bigger underlying problems. These bigger problems are usually not where they think they are! They can only learn to see them by helping you learn to solve your problems! We sometimes assume coaching is one way, when in fact learning involves both parties

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Dave LaHote January 07, 2015
2 People AGREE with this reply

Thanks for that insight Dan.  To often I see pressure on leaders to solve the big problems.  While that might make sense in the big picture, if they can't frame those big issues into a sequence of small solveable problems the organization stays in the big abstract issue mode taking a long time and many resources to make little or no progress.  Too often leaders "hand off" the problem to a subordinate rather than coaching them through it as you suggest.

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Daniel Jones January 07, 2015
5 People AGREE with this reply
Agree Dave. What I should have added is that no one is going to solve the bigger problems (which will be poorly framed by leaders) unless the line is experienced in solving their own immediate problems. Only as you help build this capability in the line can you actually see and correctly frame the big problems, let alone break them into smaller bite sized chunks for the line to tackle. Facing, finding and framing problems are the learning challenges for leaders whereas framing and solving them are the capability challenges for the line

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Tim Dixson January 08, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment
My problem has always been leaders defining problems in terms of metrics. Problem statements would very often read something like, "We need to reduce the labor hours per unit on Product X by 50%." Great read

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Dave LaHote January 08, 2015
3 People AGREE with this reply

Thanks Tim.  Metrics are great and setting an objective like a 50% reduction in cost on a specific product line might be a good Hoshin type objective if we can back it up with why this is important from the customer standpoint and what we expect such a reduction in cost will do for us from a strategic and competitive point of view. But, I would never state it as "the" problem to be worked on.  The question I would ask is why are our cost are 50% too high?  Have we not defined value well?  Are we over processing versus what the customer wants?  Are our materials cost really greater than competitors?  Is our labor content really greater than our competitors?  There may be problems in each of these areas that need to be addressed and there may be processes that need to be changed.  Those issues should be identified through the Hoshin process.  But, just making the big objective the problem seldom results in real progress.

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