The power of a problem series: Identifying the right problem from the start

Feb 3, 2022

As a manager, you've likely come to think of problems as bad things. They are something you need to get rid of or fix as quickly as possible. Problems cause pain, anxiety and stress—for you, your staff and your organization. So it's only natural to view problems with a wary eye and a sigh before you cast about for a quick solution to make them go away.

All too often, we don't take the time to understand the problem, and we end up applying solutions that either don't work, make the problem worse, or even create new problems. So how do you stop the cycle? One way is to ensure that you've identified the right problem from the start.

As Lean specialists with SAO's Center for Government Innovation, we work with local governments to help them improve their own processes. Our first step when we meet with a local government's managers or staff is to clarify the problem they are trying to solve before we move on to exploring root causes and identifying solutions. Sometimes we even find that getting to a clear problem definition is all the help they needed.

In this series of blog posts, we're going to share a variety of techniques we use to help local governments solve the right problem the first time. Each week, we'll pose a fictional problem a local government might face and offer tools you can use to identify the right problem and avoid creating a cascade of bigger issues.

Here's our first scenario, illustrating how we rush to understand a problem so we can implement a solution.

Ellen was recently hired as the new city manager of Wellsville. She was excited to meet her staff and learn about her new community.

Before Ellen even had a chance to get coffee on her first day in the office, the city's finance director, Fatima, confronted her. As Ellen lowered herself into her chair, Fatima plopped herself in the opposite chair and began to spout off a litany of problems she sees across the various city departments. Wanting to impress her new manager, Fatima offered a hodgepodge of solutions and, as a side note, mentioned her frustration with the former city manager who had not acted on her advice.

After Fatima finished, Ellen calmly inquired how she had identified these issues. Had she identified specific problems? How had she measured the problems she was seeing? As Fatima hemmed and hawed, Ellen shared a story from her time as a public works director.

Ellen recalled the difficulty she had getting her crews out the door promptly every morning. She initially thought it was a task scheduling and assignment problem. She was on the brink of ordering expensive scheduling software until she participated in a process improvement workshop at city hall, where she learned how to define a problem first before attempting to solve it. After following the process and taking the time to watch the crews scrambling to assemble needed equipment, the solution turned out to be much simpler. She equipped every truck with the same set of tools—mounted and stored in the same way—and the crews found their morning routine much more manageable and efficient.

Ellen promised Fatima that she would share with her the techniques she had learned to define a problem, after she got her morning coffee.

Failing to solve the right problem has consequences. Your government wastes resources, employees become discouraged, citizen complaints can increase, and you can end up with initiatives that aren't aligned with your strategic goals—all because you addressed the wrong problem.

Tools for finding the right problem

At its core, defining a problem is about describing the gap between “what is” and “what ought to be.” Using the tools that we will discuss in the coming weeks might call for spending a little more time up front, but the pay-off can save you time, money or effort—or all three in the end. These tools include:

  • Identifying the problem—How you initially see a problem may only be a small piece of a larger issue. Incidents that appear isolated may actually be connected and indicative of a systemic problem.
  • Defining the problem—Your first hunch about the nature of a problem may be wrong, which is why it's important to ask the right types of questions so you can clearly define the problem before moving toward a solution.
  • Measuring the problem—Using simple, quantifiable data can help you understand the actual size and scope of the problem.
  • Tackling big problems one part at a time—When a problem seems to be too complex, too interconnected and too big to handle, it helps to break it down into manageable pieces.
  • Creating a culture for problem solving—Fostering a culture that values taking the time to fully understand and solve the right problem will save time and money in the long run and may increase employee morale.

Applying these skills to your role

As Lean coaches, we often see relief in the faces of team members when they come together to tackle a problem that has been festering for a long time. A clear problem statement can help transform frustration into a common purpose.

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Problems aren't something to hide. Rather, you should view them as opportunities that drive creativity, collaboration and resilience. During the next five articles in this series, we'll follow Ellen and Fatima's story as they identify, define, and measure problems in Wellsville.