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Do You Really Understand the Problem You’re Trying to Solve?

May 14, 2020
Framing the problem properly makes all the difference in your improvement efforts.

“The problem is, I don’t have a sales manager I can trust.”

Those were the words of the CEO of a rapidly growing venture-backed logistics company in explaining why she wasn’t spending more time on the large, critical, strategic issues that desperately needed her attention. Too bad that she didn’t read my new book, The Conclusion Trap (2020, D&L Publications)Then she’d know that she really didn’t understand her problem at all. 

You hear people voice this kind of “problem” all the time. It’s always a lack: a lack of money, a lack of time, a lack of a trustworthy sales manager, a lack of a wish-granting genie. But these aren’t really problems at all. Sure, they sound like problems (largely because they’re prefaced with, “The problem is….”), but in fact they’re just solutions masquerading as problems. 

When you define your problem as a lack of something, the only possible solution is the negation of that definition. So, when you lack something, the only thing you can do is to get more of it—in other words, you’ve already decided upon the solution. 

This kind of problem framing drives you into a cognitive cul-de-sac. It closes off all other avenues of exploration. It prevents you from seeing all the other possibilities to improve the situation. 

Imagine that the CEO had framed the problem in any of the following ways: 

  • The problem is, we can’t make a profit with the discounts my sales manager typically provides new customers.
  • The problem is, my sales manager promises delivery dates that are impossible for us to meet.
  • The problem is, I spend six hours per week reviewing the terms and discounts of the contracts my sales manager writes for new clients. 

Framing the problem like this would give the CEO lots of room for alternative solutions. She could figure out ways to lower the cost of her service. Or work with the product team to find ways to shorten lead time for certain services. Or provide firm parameters for terms and discounts that the sales manager has to follow. Or, or, or. The point is that when the problem is properly framed—that is, as a real problem, not as a pre-determined answer—there’s a larger solution space to explore. There’s opportunity for root cause improvement, not just symptomatic Band-aids. 

Think of the COVID-19 crisis. You could say that the problem is the lack of a vaccine. Which is true. . . but then the only solution is to wait for a vaccine. However, if you frame the problem like this—“We need to keep people from dying while we wait for a vaccine”—then we can explore faster ramp-up of testing; multiple ways of contact tracing; better ways to keep people socially distant; new kinds of PPE for individuals; alternative methods of food delivery; etc. 

Here are four ways you can improve your problem framing: 

1. Don’t ever say, “The problem is a lack of….” As explained above, this isn’t a problem statement at all. It’s a solution. End of story. 

2. Choose specificity over generalizations. Use data in your problem statement to quantify what’s actually happening. Saying that you “don’t trust your sales manager” isn’t nearly as good as saying that you “spend six hours per week reviewing and revising new contracts.” 

3. Express the problem from the customer’s perspective. In other words, how does this problem affect your customer? This framing clarifies why the problem is an issue worthy of addressing. For example, your clunky order entry software might create real problems for your customer service reps, but it’s more compelling to say that “our clunky software leads to shipping errors 10% of the time."

4. Try multiple frames for each problem. Force yourself to generate at least four possible problem statements. Each one will provide a different perspective on the problem, which will suggest different countermeasures that you can put into place. 

Framing a problem is like setting sail from port. Even a one-degree difference in the angle of departure on a 1,000 mile journey will change your ultimate destination dramatically. Of course you can—and will—course correct along the way, but it’s better to be going in generally the right direction at the outset. 

Dan Markovitz is a Shingo prize-winning author, speaker, and consultant who helps companies accelerate their lean journeys. You can reach him at or @danmarkovitz.

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