“Some years ago the head of the Industrial Engineering Department of Yale University said, ‘If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend up to two-thirds of that hour in attempting to define what the problem is.’”
From the 1966 book titled “The Manufacturing Man and His Job” by Robert E. Finley and Henry R. Ziobr
Is there a problem?
You’ve assembled a group of people, possibly members of your team and some external stakeholders. You’ve lured them with promises of donuts and coffee and some relief from the day-to-day, and a mandate to “define the problem”.
Often, there is a strong shared sense of purpose at this point. For example, in the movie Apollo 13 (as described here in a previous post), the urgent problem was that astronauts would die unless a way was found to produce more breathable air.
Other times, the “problem” may be more nebulous and the starting point is simply an intention to identify an area to focus improvement efforts, completely absent of any crisis.
Under these circumstances it can be a challenge to keep the group focused on identifying a problem before plunging straight into problem solving.
Ground rules for brainstorming
Brainstorming and its conventions are just as applicable to finding a problem as they are to solving one. Both require psychological safety for the participants.
If you are leading the session, let the team know you want them to feel safe to contribute with conviction, encourage input from others and build on each others’ ideas.
You are aiming for a spirit of learning and experimentation.
To keep the group focused, set some rules at the beginning. Emphasize that the goal today is problem definition only. Explain the importance of a clearly defined question or problem, since brainstorming is less effective for problems that are difficult to describe or complex.
Setting a tone of kindness
Set the tone. The areas for improvement are to products and services – not the people who produce the products or services.
This is particularly important if those very people are at the table. For example, saying that an area for improvement is “Jennifer is slow to invoice” could be more kindly phrased “invoicing is slow”, even if the task is largely within Jennifer’s wheelhouse.
Not only is the latter description more polite, it is more accurate. All work done in a team is shaped by the team – its processes, resources and priorities – as well as by the individual. Maybe Jennifer would very much like to invoice faster, but she is overly committed to another process.
Step 1: Ideas, please
approximately twenty minutes
Step one is to gather lots of problems to be solved. Just like brainstorming for solutions, you are now brainstorming for problems.
Have each member of the team independently come up with ideas on Post Its and place them on an easel or the wall to share with group.
The ideas you seek answer this question, “what most needs improvement”?
- Go for quantity
- Withhold criticism – don’t discount your initial wild ideas or anybody else’s
- If you see somebody post something that inspires another idea, add it
I have experimented with asking for two sets of ideas: one titled “what’s important” and the other “what most needs improvement” with the hopes that there would be an intersection between the two that would provide a clear direction. In practice, explaining the distinction between the two sets of ideas, and then dividing the group up into two is more trouble than it is worth. The next steps will focus on the most important ideas anyway.
Step 2: Vote
approximately ten minutes
Once the Post Its are all up on the wall, ask the group to put a tally mark (a line for each vote with a line through for to denote reaching a tally of five – like on a prison wall) on each idea that resonates with them.
There’s no need to be overly fussy about this. Aim for each participant to give about half the Post Its a tally mark – they can even put two tally marks on an idea that really excites them. The goal is to simply get a sense of what ideas have the most interest.
Step 3: Organize and describe
Approximately twenty minutes
Have the group see if the Post Its can be organized into columns of common themes, e.g. invoicing, quotes, inventory. Then, ask the group to work out a description of the problem expressed in each column, e.g.
- invoicing is too slow
- quotes are inaccurate
- items are sold without knowing they are out of stock
Ask participants to read out the descriptions to invite questions and discussion that can help tighten up the problem definitions.
Step 4: Tie breaker
By now two or three dominant problems will have been defined.
Until this point the conclusions are entirely produced by the group. You may wish to continue this democratic approach by asking those assembled to vote on which problem to tackle, or rely on the tally marks already in place to tie break.
Some managers will declare a winner from the shortlist or decide to seek solutions to more than one of the front runners.
Whichever way you want to proceed, democratically or by fiat, ideally you will identify this when you begin the problem definition process so nobody feels misled or manipulated.