What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?

what problem are you trying to solveOne of my responsibilities here at Gemba Academy is to coach our Black Belt and Master Black Belt candidates. And, without question, the most common question I ask during the project selection phase of the journey is “What problem are you trying to solve?” I typically follow this up with “And how do you know it’s a problem? What evidence do you have?

Incidentally, I used to ask “what data do you have?” for the second question but, through some coaching experimentation, learned that the word “evidence” doesn’t freak people out like the word “data” sometimes does.

In fact, I just finished a coaching call with a fantastic Black Belt candidate who is working on project selection. He told me all about these manual processes their team members were having to deal with. Now, don’t get me wrong, these manual processes may not be ideal…an automated solution may be better. But those are potential countermeasures and we simply need to keep these ideas in our back pockets while we scope and define the project.

So, I simply asked, “Ok, let’s assume those manual processes aren’t ideal. If we improve them what will get better?” This then led us to a discussion on lead times.

I then asked, “How long are the lead times?” This resulted in the candidate explaining that they were trying to get at this data (aka evidence).

So, his next steps are to collect and characterize, this lead time data. Once that’s in place, and assuming the problem doesn’t need to be broken down more, we can move forward to what I always say is the easy part of the project…solving the problem.

But, until we can answer “What problem are you trying to solve?” and “How do you know it’s a problem? What evidence do you have?” we can’t move forward as effectively as we should.

I’d be curious to hear in the comments (or on LinkedIn) whether you’ve also seen folks struggle with project selection.

4 Comments

  1. Erik Sveide

    July 5, 2021 - 2:40 am
    Reply

    I recognize your question very much and think it’s a great question.
    Not seldom the answer to the question is not that it is a problem with the existing process but that the existing process is not followed.
    If you don’t start by asking do we have a standard process and was it followed we might end up in redesigning perfectly well functioning processes just because we don’t have the discipline to follow the existing standards.

  2. Daylon Walton

    August 18, 2021 - 10:13 am
    Reply

    Nice blog post! I always lead every first client interaction with “What is the problem you’re trying to solve?” – but haven’t thought about your two follow up questions – def adding them to the toolbox. I usually ask, “And how will you know that it’s been solved?” which is sort of a backdoor question to metrics and the evidence question you propose – but I like your straightforward question better. Thanks!

  3. Dan James

    August 18, 2021 - 1:46 pm
    Reply

    I also like to ask, “How will you know the problem has been solved?”… which usually leads to how the result will be tested or business value calculated.

  4. Jared Akins

    August 24, 2021 - 10:54 am
    Reply

    These are fantastic questions to ask. Many people who have been practicing improvement start with the first question, “What problem are you trying to solve?” This is typically people go into solving mode. They have solutions and ideas of what to fix. I believe it is our nature to solve first and then see if we fixed the problem.

    As we have all learned through experience taking the time to understand the problem with evidence not only helps us solve the problem, but also ensures we solve the “right” problem. I have had instances where we thought the problem was one thing or in one area. After studying the entire picture with evidence we found the actual problem was different than we initially had thought. If we hadn’t taken the time to understand the bigger picture about the problem(s) involved we may have solved the “wrong” problem.

    Thank you for sharing Ron.

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