I discovered these definitions of problem recently, and appreciate the way that the definitions are succinct, accurate, and worthy of some contemplation.
- Having a problem is by nature a state of affairs plagued with some difficulty or undesired status.
- A problem represents a challenge that encourages solving to establish more desirable circumstances.
[These are from Root Cause Analysis, by Bjorn Andersen]
When we talk about problems in an organisational context, the discussion ultimately themes around finding a solution. Deciding on the right solution can be quite a problem in itself .
This is because the symptoms of the problem and the cause of the problem are often confused, misunderstood or chunked together. In problem solving for long term benefits, or to create long term “more desirable circumstances” the symptoms need to be noted and then the cause of the problem and producer of the symptoms must be located.
Does a problem always have symptoms?
No, a problem may not have any symptoms at all, or they might be so subtle that they are not noticed. Or perhaps the organisation is not looking for symptoms or is looking in the wrong place.
For example, a Utility Provider prided itself in its ability to meet customer demand very accurately even through the peaks and troughs of load demand. It wasn’t until we introduced a more focused measurement system that they realised that their ability in this area was overstated. Prior to that there were no strong indications that practice was not meeting prediction.
Short term solutions may mean long term pain
This is especially common in times that are difficult for the organisation – such as impacts from the GFC. During these times organisations must remain agile and creative, while avoiding the temptation to be reactive.
For example, an Operations Manager, told to reduce costs, changed the suppliers of essential components of their products to a firm that was much cheaper. He managed to save $30,000 through this process. After many months, the organisation realised that rework and customisation of their products was at an all time high, due to a large number of them not meeting measurement specifications. It was estimated to have cost this company over $250,000.
Take the time and the effort
We can’t over emphasise the importance of allocating the time and expending the effort to identify the causes of problems that are costly to your organisation – in terms of money, customer loyalty, efficiency and productivity, or reputation. Approaches taken by Performance Focused Organisations include:
- Using the Quality Department, Continuous Improvement Department or Strategy Department to identify causes and solve the problem;
- Establishing a department or team responsible for solving the problem – team members should have enough “clout” to implement appropriate solutions;
- Use external expertise to review and assess, identify causes and implement solutions.