Redefining “problem” (with Goal in mind)

In problem solving or continuous improvement workshops a problem is usually defined as a gap between the actual situation and the desired situation, and thus a problem causes an unsatisfactory situation or an UnDesirable Effect (UDE).

This definition, while true, is somewhat too vague to be useful when working on solving problems and continuous improvement.

Indeed, in a business environment* many things can be qualified “undesirable situation” or “undesirable effect”, from bad tasting coffee to important production equipment breakdown, from laser printer toner stockout to quality control rejecting an important production batch.

In most business environments improvement opportunities are literally infinite.

*business environment can be very vague as well, I suggest every reader to transpose this article into his/her environment.

From these few examples it becomes obvious that the too broad definition of problems need some refinement. The limited time and resources of an organization should not be wasted on every so-called problems, but instead solely focused on the critical ones.

Failing to do so bears the risk of spending time and burning up resources to solve “problems” without any system-wide noticeable positive effect. That’s what happens to so many Lean initiatives or continuous improvement programs, draining significant resources for frustrating results.

So, how to select the problems worth coping with?

In a business environment the organization exists to achieve a Goal, itself subordinated to the achievement of several objectives. When something hinders the organization to achieve its objectives, hence its Goal, the hinderance is worth attracting (all) focus for problem solving.

In “The Logical Thinking Process, a  Systems Approach to Complex Problem Solving”, Bill Dettmer defines a UDE as “something that really exists; something that is negative compared with the system’s goal, Critical Success Factors or Necessary Conditions.” This definition is linked to The Goal Tree and if this one is properly built, the understanding of what an UDE is will be straightforward and unquestioned.

Now with the organization’s Goal in mind, a “problem” can be understood as an UnDesirable Effect (UDE) being an obstacle for the organization to achieve its objectives, its Goal. Anything felt undesirable but not directly threatening the achievement of the objectives or Goal is an annoyance at best.

Does it mean anything NOT threatening the objectives and Goal is not worth considering?

While priority must clearly be given to issues and UDEs hindering the organization to achieve its Goal, some “annoyances” should be taken care of as well. Things making job or life easier for employees for instance may not directly contribute to corporate objective achievement but can help improve morale, ergonomics, safety and the feeling of being important enough to the organization to deserve some attention.

Well, how to select these “problems” worth considering?

This is where methodologies handover to management, “science” handover to “art” and plain rationality to humanity. It’s up to managers to sense what is to be done, why and to what extend.


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