The power of a problem: Breaking big problems into manageable pieces

Mar 2, 2022

This is the fifth article of our six-part power of a problem series. Missed the last article? Read it here.

Last week's entry in our Power of a Problem series focused on simple measurements to help you define the problem. But as we pointed out, the more you know, the more you might begin to see a bigger problem. This week, we're going to share techniques that we, as Lean specialists, use to help local governments break big problems into manageable pieces.

Our fictional scenario this week illustrates how a problem can grow tentacles and quickly overwhelm you.

Fatima, Wellsville's finance director, had been following the methods for defining a problem that her city manager, Ellen, had shared with her. While she now had better insight into the systemic problems of the accounts payable process, her inquiries led to the realization that she would soon lose many long-time city employees to retirement.

Fatima decided to drop by to talk with James, the new human resources director. Fatima shared her concerns about the impending loss of institutional knowledge in the finance department.

Acknowledging Fatima's concerns, James confided that he was overwhelmed by the number of problems related to employee turnover that he saw across every department, not just finance. The processes for recruiting, hiring, onboarding and offboarding employees were fraught with problems, and other managers were putting pressure on him to fix them. On top of all that, employee satisfaction was trending downward, while turnover was beginning to trend upward.

As James talked, Fatima realized that she could help James by sharing her newfound knowledge of how to define a problem. First, she suggested he write down a list of all the problems he was observing. After 15 minutes, James had filled several pages, which left him feeling even more overwhelmed.

Fatima then used the process Ellen had taught her and talked through some of the issues James listed, helping him note which ones posed the greatest risks to smooth operations within the city. Fatima then shared some tactics she had learned from Ellen to prioritize problems.

Tactics to scale oversized problems down to manageable problems

Sometimes the challenge isn't so much identifying a single problem, it's grappling with a problem list so long and interconnected that it is overwhelming to figure out where to begin.

Fatima had learned two approaches from Ellen to help break a big problem into smaller, more manageable pieces: chunking and slicing. Chunking helps you focus on one part of a complex process at a time. Slicing makes addressing the problem manageable by limiting it to a particular area or group. She shared these approaches with James.


James couldn't fix the entire employment lifecycle at once, so he needed to focus on one aspect first. To help him decide where to focus first, Fatima posed a few basic questions.

  • Where is the biggest challenge right now? Is it the length of time needed to get approval to fill a position after someone retires? Is the consistently disappointing pool of applicants the most important challenge? It's just a matter of prioritizing your organization's needs. Where are you going to get the most benefit for your process improvement effort?
  • How can you improve things at the beginning of the process? Start at the earliest point in your process where you have influence. Improving process quality at the very beginning can help resolve problems that occur later in the process.
  • Would it help to start with the end? Sometimes, starting at the end is a good way to gain clarity. Employee offboarding isn't just onboarding in reverse, but it may feel more concrete because it has a clear end point. Mapping the offboarding process may give you great insights to reverse engineer onboarding.


Rather than focusing on a specific part of a process, slicing a problem looks holistically at the issue, but from the perspective of only one team. James might address the entire employee lifecycle process—from recruitment through departure—by working with one department at a time.

  • Work with a willing partner. Consider teaming up with someone else in the organization who is focused on the big challenges in their department. By helping them make significant improvements, you can then take what you learn to other departments. The finance department might not be biggest challenge, but James knows pending retirements are on Fatima's mind.
  • Tackle the gnarliest challenge first. For many cities, recruiting and retaining police officers is a particularly big challenge. If you can solve the toughest challenge first, everything else will look easy and fall into place.
  • Look at the high-volume areas. Some parks and recreation departments hire a large number of seasonal employees who are onboarded and offboarded quickly. By focusing on high-volume areas, you'll have an opportunity to try out new strategies and get rapid feedback.

So what is the power of a problem?

So how do you make all this up-front effort pay off? In our final blog post of the series, we'll share how building a culture that emphasizes solving the right problems once instead of the same problems over and over drives creativity, collaboration and resilience in your organization.