Are you Solving The Right Problem?

From my experience, here are a few pitfalls in problem-solving:

  1. Not identifying the correct problem.
  2. Being distracted by the by-product or side issue of the real problem.
  3. Deciding on an easy-to-do solution which does not really address the problem.


Consider this real-life example:

We make carton boards that require surfaces of paper being glued to each other. One day, we had problems of poor gluing: the paper layers kept separating. The presenter gave the usual fishbone: man, machine, materials, methods, and so on. He said that the root cause was that the nozzles (which discharges the glue onto the paper) kept on clogging. Therefore, preventive action was to keep the nozzles clean.


But the true root cause was that the machine was not formulating the glue properly. The glue became too viscous, thereby clogging the nozzles. The true solution was to open up the machine and painstakingly test every mechanism.


True enough, we found some defective sensors and replaced them. The machine weighed and mixed the ingredients according to an approved recipe. Sure, we still had to clean the nozzles. But if we didn’t address the machine, clogging will soon recur. We will have an endless (not to mention, expensive) cycle of clog-shutdown-and-clean, clog-shutdown-and-clean. Preventive action was to have regular audits of the gluing machine.


The presenter (1) missed the real problem (saying it lies with the nozzles), (2) distracted by the by-product of the problem (the clogged nozzles) and (3) deciding on a solution because it was the easiest to do (clean the nozzles).


Here’s a guide for solution-checking:

How do I know this is the real problem? Answer: If you believe you have identified the problem and applied the solution, but the problem recurs, then it means you have attacked the symptom but not the disease.

How do I know I have covered all grounds? Answers: Look at the whole process. Do not assume. Always verify. Ask the “what if’s”.

Would my analysis and conclusion violate any logic, such as non-sequitors or false dichotomy? Tip: Have a peer (or better, SME) critique your work.


We all heard that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. But that is not enough. That first step must be in the correct direction and that we do not stray along the way. Problem-solving is like that. Define the right problem and don’t stray from the process. Then you will reach your destination: a headache-free environment.


Note: This article is excerpted from my signature module Creating a Problem-Solving Culture, which seeks to empower both leaders and followers tap their reservoir of creativity and wisdom. For queries, please feel free to message me.


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