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Start By Defining The “What” Instead Of The “How”

Posted on September 2nd, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


We know that the best way to kick off any design or development work is to get to grips with the problem we’re trying to solve. As we looked at last time, understanding who the key stakeholders are and what they’re most interested is an important first step in finding the right solution.

But once we’ve done that initial leg work and ideas begin buzzing around our brains, most of us want to dive into the interesting work and try coming up with solutions. Unfortunately, even though we think we have a solid understanding of the problem we’re addressing, it’s still not quite time to jump straight to solution.

Resisting the How

Solutions are all about how something is accomplished. The processes, the structures, the flows, the systems, the materials and everything else we put in place to address a problem all describe how the problem being solved.

Looking at the how though, makes an assumption that we know exactly what we’re trying to do. Even if we’ve done a great job of engaging our stakeholders up front, I’m still yet to work on a project where we had everything right first time. It’s always important to explicitly and unambiguously define what we’re going to accomplish, before moving onto looking at how to achieve those aims.

Defining the What

It might seem like this step is a waste of time, that it’s duplicating work or making things more complicated than they need to be. But the difference between defining the what and defining the how is bigger than it may appear.

To properly define what the solution has to be or do, it’s important to stay true to the problem we’re trying to solve and to forget about the solution that’s undoubtedly forming in our heads.

A true specification of what we’re trying to achieve should be shaped only by the problem. It should cover the minimum levels of performance for a solution to be acceptable. Sometimes it’s helpful to define non-essential, but nice to have, features too. But these must be distinct from the minimum levels of performance covered in the specification.

Once the what is defined in a spec, the very final step before moving on to the more exciting part of the process and allowing ourselves to consider potential solutions, is to share the what with our stakeholders. It should align with what they’ve said before, but now is the time to find out if there’s been a mistake somewhere.

I’ve found that going through this step and making sure everyone is on board right from the start of a project can save all sorts of headaches further down the line. So to give yourself the best possible start, make sure everyone is agreed with what you’re trying to do, before you look at how you’re going to do it.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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