Below is a contribution from Sam Wagner the Director of Manufacturing, Glenwood at FAST Global Solutions – the new WASP, Inc. on a series on Problem Solving.
Our workplaces are filled with problems. Describing a problem we want to address can be trickier than it seems, and is critical to allow us to effectively communicate and gain support in helping solve it.
I’ve found two common traps in describing problems. The first is to assume we understand it fully and jump directly to actions that may solve the problem. Backing up, slowing down, and ensuring everyone involved clearly understands the problem helps us solve the problem much more effectively. We would be wise to heed Albert Einstein’s advice, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
The second trap is that we sometimes get so involved in various aspects of the situation that we lose track of specifically what we’re trying to accomplish. We can’t see the forest for the trees. Have you ever been involved in a discussion only to have someone turn and say, “What problem are we trying to solve here?” It happens all too often.
How can we avoid these initial problem-solving traps?
The most important part of a good problem description is to write it down. No matter how well you think you understand the problem, writing it down clarifies the problem for you and helps you communicate it to others.
One method commonly used to describe a problem is the 4W2H tool. Simply described, this technique has you answer the questions Who, What, Where, When, How, and How Much related to the issue at hand, which is often related to an unfortunate incident that occurred.1
Who – who was involved in the incident and/or is affected by the issue?
This is not to identify who to blame. It helps you determine who to go to for better, first-hand information and potentially who to have as part of the problem-solving team.
What – succinctly, what is the issue? What happened?
As Dragnet’s Joe Friday reminds us, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
Where – where, physically, did the incident occur?
Where was the problem first noticed, where did it actually occur, where was the source or cause of the problem – these are often three different locations. For example, many production problems are noticed in assembly when things don’t go together properly. The problem actually may have occurred in fabrication where one part was not made correctly. The cause could have been where the tooling or maintenance was conducted.
When – when did the incident occur?
When was it noticed, when did it happen, which shift, when during the shift, when during the production run – at the beginning, middle or end; a bunch in a row or intermittently? When has it happened before?
How – how did the incident occur?
Don’t get into the whys yet, just a simple factual description of how it happened.
How much – how many items were involved? All, several, just a few, or only one?
An additional question sometimes asked is “Why now?” In other words, why do we want to work on solving this problem now? The answer is useful for prioritizing this problem to gain support.
Finally, when finding the answers to these questions, go directly to where the problem was noticed, occurred, and caused, and talk to the people directly involved. Too often, those not directly involved jump to conclusions or make assumptions. As a wise man once told me, “All stories are true, and some even happened.” In describing the problem, make every attempt to dig deep with your investigation and discover what actually happened.
While it may be difficult at first to clearly answer these questions about a circumstance, once you do, it brings clarity to the problem-solving team and quickly focuses the effort on the real issue at hand. By taking the time to clearly describe the problem in writing using a tool like the 4W2H questions, we can rocket our productivity by dramatically reducing the time to come to an effective solution.
“A problem well defined is a problem half solved,” American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey, 1859-1952
- Sometimes this tool is called 5W1H, where the question “how much” is replaced with “why”.