We Talk A Lot About Problem-Solving, but What is a Problem?

We Talk A Lot About Problem-Solving, but What is a Problem?

By Justin Tao

What is Problem Solving?

Solving Problems is a part of almost every person’s daily life both at home and in the workplace. Here at TXM we talk about problem solving techniques a lot, such as 5 Whys, brainstorming, Fishbone Diagrams, Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA), flow charts, mind maps, you name it. Different companies and cultures have different ways of problem solving. There is even a controversial international guideline for problem solving on the internet. However, sometimes we talk too much about problem solving techniques and solutions; in the end, we forget what the real problem is. There is an urban legend states that NASA spent more than $1M to develop a Fisher Space Pen that could write in zero-gravity experienced during spaceflight, while the Soviet Union took the simpler and cheaper route of just using pencils.

So What Is a Problem?

A problem is a situation preventing something from being achieved. The word “problem” comes from a Greek word meaning an “obstacle” (something that is in your way).

In business, a problem is the deviation from the standard. To identify problems, we first need to know what the standard is. A “standard” is a target of how good a process or task should be. We can easily understand the gap between actual performance and the goal is a problem. Deviation from your standard high or low should be seen as a problem that needs rectifying. No standard means no problem; thus there’s no improvement. That’s why we say “No problem is a problem”. You might laugh at the Toyota production line as they get dozens of problems per shift. However, these problems are opportunities for their improvement. “No problem” means you haven’t set a good “standard” yet.

Setting Standards

A good standard should be an idea of where you want to go and is what you need to strive for. An unrealistic (too high) standard will destroy the team’s confidence and won’t help to build a continuous improvement.

A conservative (too low) standard is also not ideal, as it will weaken the drivers of further improvement. I remember when I was helping an ice-cream factory two years ago, the operations manager of that factory told me that there’s no need for improvement as their efficiency was more than 120% every day. After my observation of the shop floor, I found that there were two employees doing the work of one on their production line.

I have seen many companies set average performance for their goals as standards, which creates some problems. Below is a performance chart to demonstrate it. If you set the average performance (blue line) as the standard, you will face the same issue that the operations manager in the ice cream factory did. Doing so, you will lose opportunities for improvement. Setting the best situation as your standard (green line), will highlight all the gaps that can be improved upon. Where there are gaps (problems), there are opportunities for continuous improvement.


Problem Solving Graph Showing Actual Performance Against Time

Your company is a gold mine. Setting standards, identifying gaps, solving problems and making improvements, is the process of mining that gold.

More on Lean Problem Solving

Timothy McLean

Author: Timothy McLean

Timothy McLean is the Managing Director of TXM Lean Solutions and is an author of Lean books.