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What problem are you trying to solve?

by Olga Flory
September 11, 2013

What problem are you trying to solve?

by Olga Flory
September 11, 2013 | Comments (5)

I have a long commute, so I have plenty of time to flip through channels on my satellite radio on my way to work each morning. By the time I arrive at the office, I am usually well-aware of all the news that media is covering that day. Last week, when I tuned in to CNN, I discovered that by the end of the year, consumers all over the world will be introduced to a new invention: Galaxy Gear “smartwatch”, which, in essence, is a phone that one can wear on the wrist like a watch. I didn’t quite get whether you can actually use it as a watch—I guess this wasn’t that important. All the CNN team debated was whether it’ll be convenient to have a phone tied to your wrist, how bulky it will be, and whether in a year or so these smartwatches will replace cell phones.

As I listened, I wondered what customer problem this watch/phone would solve. Is this yet another “solution” someone came up with just because it’s a “cool thing to do”?

You can say many great inventions start with the “what if?” question. However, quite a few new products/initiatives fail miserably because they are designed without a clear understanding of what customer problem they are intended to solve.

How about Esperanto? Wasn’t it a great idea to have one language for the whole planet?! If so, why do we still have something like 6,900 languages and dialects and don’t seem to be in a hurry to abandon them? Or McDonald’s Arch Deluxe… an upscale burger for a “sophisticated palate”! Here’s an idea that completely ignored the typical McDonald’s customer’s expectations.

Shifting from consumer goods, what do you think about the debate on how the U.S. should respond to the situation in Syria regarding the use of chemical weapons? In every article and news release on the topic, you find the word “problem”. However, applying the lean definition of a problem as a “gap between the current and the target state,” I am still waiting for someone to do some digging to understand the roots of this terrible problem that resulted in tragic deaths of thousands of people. Then we might all ask what we would like to achieve in this situation in the long-term. Then we could at least hope to find an optimal, sustainable, solution.”

Why do we act this way? Does it mean that we, as human beings, are not natural problem solvers? Are we “programmed” to produce blanket solutions that typically address only symptoms of problems, failing to make an effort to discover what causes them? I don’t think so. All children are naturally curious. They ask “why” until adults run out of answers. However, as we grow up, go through school, and enter the workplace, we learn that for the most part we are not rewarded for spending time to understand the problem at hand. The rewards usually come to those who produce quick solutions. So we all start playing by the rules, suppressing the inquisitive child who still lives in each of us.

To break this pattern, let’s follow a simple rule. Next time you think to say “I’ve got an idea,” pause and ask yourself:

  • Who is on the receiving end of your idea? In other words, who is your customer or audience?
  • Do you have an in-depth understanding of your customer’s needs? In other words, what is the target condition that will satisfy your customer?
  • Do you have an in-depth understanding of the reasons why you are not satisfying your customer now? Have you got a good grasp of the current situation?
  • Can you describe the gap between the current state and the target state in clear, concise, measurable terms?
  • Do you understand what causes the gap? Did you dig down to the roots of the problem?

If you struggle with any or all of these questions, put your idea on the back burner, pull out an 11x17 sheet of paper, and go to the gemba to find the answers to these questions.

As for me, on my way home from work, I’ll tune my radio to one of the music channels to spare myself from hearing about another brilliant solution to a problem we are yet to fully understand. 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Ghassan Saleh September 11, 2013
4 People AGREE with this comment

Nice article. I like it, and yes we don't know how to direct our rewards to target good behavior. It seems that most of the time we end up rewarding the bad behavior. Think of the "bailout", we rewarded companies and businesses that were so bad in doing their job and literally went bankrupt. Our workplace is not much different, we reward positive people and cheer leaders, not those who bring us the problems and ask why they are happening. In fact, we live in a culutre where we can't speak about problems unless we proceed with a talk about "quick wins" to mitigate the "negative impact" of talking about problems. Working for 9 years in the field of process improvement, I realized that there is two types of improvement projects: those that are successful with sustainable improvement and those that are successful on paper only. Most of the time I see the rewards go to the latter category, because they are usually completed on time, without alot of headach or resources. While with former, you need to tweak, check, pilot and repilot to hopefully figure out the solution, you also need to mobilize some resources here and there, being honest about performance issues and data.



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Steve Ghera September 16, 2013

The post states, "All children are naturally curious. They ask “why” until adults run out of answers. However, as we grow up, go through school, and enter the workplace, we learn that for the most part we are not rewarded for spending time to understand the problem at hand."

This hypothesizes why many children grow up to be adults seeking "instant pudding" for business solutions. I ask, why don't the other kids do that too. For me, it was my high school physics teacher, Ken Indeck. He pointed out the same fact as in this article. After hearing that, I vowed to be different. I guess teachers really do make an indelible mark on their students.



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Olga Flory September 23, 2013

Steve,

 

Thank you for your comment. You made a very good point. People who are present in our lives - parents, teachers, bosses, co-workers, friends, sometimes it can be just someone who you chat with in an airport waiting for your flight - leave marks on us. And if those who have a lasting presence, particularly parents and teachers, understand the importance of teaching kids to be problem solvers, they are giving them a great skill that will help them through their lives immensely. It means though they need to be able to do it themselves... :)



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Mark Harris September 17, 2013
Great insight on problem solving.  More affirmation of what you are saying is the Air Force 8-step problem solving model that we use (I am both a certified industry and Air Force Black Belt).  I've seen other LEI presenations that espouse (indirectly) the effectiveness of this problem solving approach.  Briefly, our (The Air Force's) 8 steps include: 1. Clarify and validate the problem, 2. Identify a performance gap, 3. Set an improvement target, 4. Determine the root cause (of problem in 1), 5. Identify countermeasures (that reduce or eliminate 4 - RCs), 6. See countermeasures through (an action plan for 5), 7. Confirm results and process (remeasure gap id's in 2 to confirm meets target set in 3), 8. Standardize successful Processes (like "C" in DMAIC - control plase, standardize, sustainment).  Our project A3s depict our projects by describing in detail these 8 steps.

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Olga Flory September 23, 2013

Mark,

 

Thank you for sharing your problem solving approach. It's very similar to what we teach in our workshops. And yes, most of what we teach, in one way or another, boils down to the ability of an individual or an organization to solve problems effectively. From formulating a strategy for a global company to minimizing the amount of re-work by an operator, it's all about knowing the target condition, grasping the current situation, and developing and implementing a plan that allows us to close the gap. Realizing this was a truly life-changing experience for me.



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