The power of a problem: Building a culture that values solving the right problem once

Mar 9, 2022

This is the final article of our six-part power of a problem series. Missed any of the previous articles in the series? Read them all here.

In our “Power of a Problem” series, we've talked about how to identify and define a problem, measure the problem, and break large and complex problems into manageable process improvement projects. At first glance, these steps may seem to require a lot of effort, but failing to solve the right problem can be costly for your government's pocketbook and morale. If you are a leader in your organization, you have the ability to create a culture that emphasizes solving the right problems the first time and empower others to do the same.

The final scenario of our blog series illustrates the benefits of overcoming our natural tendencies to see a problem and to try to fix it immediately.

Ellen, Wellsville's city manager, was having her weekly check-in with her finance director, Fatima. Ellen had worked closely with Fatima over the past couple months to teach her techniques to clarify and manage problems.

Fatima had embraced Ellen's problem-defining approach and eagerly shared with Ellen the myriad ways she had used it to define the problems in the accounts payable process. She also related how she had used these tools to help James, the HR director, when he was feeling overwhelmed by problems.

As Ellen listened to Fatima, she recalled their very first meeting and how Fatima had shared her unfocused frustrations and scattershot solutions to departmental problems. Now, Fatima was coming to Ellen with a well-defined problem statement as a step in working toward a solution.

Ellen offered Fatima the opportunity to lead a training session for the management team. Ellen thought Fatima's newfound enthusiasm for problem solving would be an ideal model for her team.

As a problem solver in your organization, you can choose to create a culture that values taking the time to fully understand a problem. As Ellen demonstrated to Fatima, slowing down to fully analyze and define a problem saves time in the long run because you don't solve the wrong problem first. Ellen demonstrated a process that entailed:

  • Identifying the problem—Look for common signs to distinguish one-off incidents from systemic problems.
  • Defining the problem—Ask open-ended, clarifying questions so you can define the problem.
  • Measuring the problem—Do simple and high-level measurement so you can understand the size and scope of the problem.
  • Tackling big problems one part at a time—Break down big problems into manageable pieces with chunking and slicing.

You know you have a problem—now what? As Lean specialists at SAO, we help local governments identify and define problems. In some cases, that's all the help they need. The act of unmasking the real problem can bring relief to an organization, and the actions to take become clear and obvious. For others, defining the problem helps to reveal that the issue may be bigger than initially thought. Some organizations will garner consensus to tackle the problem with leadership convening an internal team or task force to address it.

But other governments will uncover problems far more complicated that require outside help to solve. When this happens, SAO's Center for Government Innovation offers process improvement specialists who provide training and facilitation to local governments at no charge.

So, what is the power of a problem?

The power of a problem is that it reminds you to focus on the process, not the people. Your success at work is largely based on complex networks of people, information and materials coming together in just the right way. We do the same work so often that it becomes routine, and we fail to appreciate the true complexity of what we do. But when we break down the process into its individual steps and connections, we can find practical ways to make the system work more smoothly. Looking at our work as a complex system that can be improved helps everyone work together for solutions.

The power of a problem is that it helps improve everyone's work and builds a coalition to create meaningful change in your organization. Engage early to get the input you need from the frontline workers in other departments and from executive leadership. Working together to tap into a shared purpose can create the impetus to take on big challenges.

The power of a problem is that it directs our attention away from symptoms and asks us to be more curious about causes. Very rarely are these the same thing. Fixing the symptoms (the wrong problem) may just make the problem show up somewhere else. Finding and fixing the causes (the right problem) enables you to solve complex problems and improve your operations.


To learn more about how SAO's process improvement services could help your government, call us at (564) 999-0818 or email us at