Books devoted to problem-solving emphasize the importance of deeply understanding the problem before implementing countermeasures. Many of them (including mine!) cite Charles Kettering’s maxim that “A problem well-framed is a problem half-solved.” But what, precisely, is a “well-framed” problem? I’ve written before about some of the obvious errors to avoid—couching a solution in the form of a problem, and relying in generalities instead of specifics. Now let’s talk about the importance of word choice.
Full disclosure: As a college English major and former high school English teacher, I’m predisposed to focus on the power of language. But this isn’t just a matter of quibbling over semantics. Words matter. They set the trajectory of our problem-solving voyage. A small change in word choice can lead us to an entirely different set of countermeasures, just as surely as a small change in angle will send a satellite hurtling into outer space instead of useful orbit.
Here are two major considerations that will dramatically affect your problem-solving.
What’s the Subject?
A company I’ve worked with has long been frustrated by its lack of progress in creating a culture of continuous improvement. Many employees participate in the company’s green belt program and complete one project, but only about 1% of them do a second project for a yellow belt.
Consider these three problem statements:
- Only 1% of our green belts go on to do a second project.
- Our managers don’t nurture a culture of continuous improvement.
- Our company only completes 10 yellow/black belt projects each year.
All three capture the same basic issue affecting the company—it’s not getting as many improvement projects as the leadership team wants—but the phrasing of each makes an important difference in how you approach the problem.
The first problem statement puts the focus of our inquiry on the green belt employees. We look at their motivations and their choices. The second problem statement puts the focus on the managers. It causes us to look into how managers decide what needs to be done in their areas. The third problem statement focuses on the company as a whole—what’s assigned a high priority, how resources are allocated, and what kind of work is recognized and rewarded.
The shift in focus leads to different kinds of countermeasures. If we focus on the employees, we could change the performance evaluation and compensation system to encourage them to take on more projects. If we focus on the managers, we might coach them on the need to provide time for their team to take on additional work not directly related to their core responsibilities. If we focus on the company, we’d likely get the CEO to reconsider how much time she expects employees to spend on improvement; develop a KPI to support project completion; and increase the visibility and esteem of successful project completion.
How Do You Measure the Problem?
Let’s say the problem you’re dealing with is a low level of innovation. Here are three possible problem statements:
- We’re not as innovative as our competitors.
- We only bring one new product/service to market each year.
- Only 5% of our revenue comes from products developed in the past three years.
The first problem statement is vague and poorly defined. Even so, it leads you to an inquiry into measurement. How do you measure innovation? How do your competitors measure it? Are you measuring the number of new products and services, or the value/revenue of those new products and services? If you only bring one new product to market each year, but it’s always a home run, does it matter? Is quality more important than quantity? What metrics are your competitors using?
The second problem statement leads you to investigate the process by which innovations are brought to market as well as the culture around innovation. How many new ideas died in committee? What criteria are used to determine whether or not to bring something new to market? Are people afraid to fail, or do you have an environment that rewards risk-taking? Do people get credit for innovation (or attempted innovation), or do the highest-ranking people typically get the credit?
The third problem statement leads you to consider the pricing, promotion, and placement of new products and services. Perhaps your innovation engine is purring smoothly, but the sales and marketing function lacks the skills and experience to leverage something new. The sales team at one company I worked with is uncomfortable bringing out new designs. They rely heavily on older items they’re more comfortable selling, and as a result don’t give the new products a fair chance to establish themselves in the market.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with any of the frames for these problems. However, it’s important to realize that the word choice in your problem statement has a tremendous impact on both the trajectory of your problem-solving efforts and your probable countermeasures. Next time you’re faced with a problem, try changing the subject or the measurement and see how it affects your perspective.Dan Markovitz is a Shingo prize-winning author, speaker, and consultant who helps companies accelerate their lean journeys. You can reach him at www.markovitzconsulting.com or @danmarkovitz.