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What’s The Problem?

Posted on August 22nd, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


If our pursuit of the next technological breakthrough, new product, improved process or next innovation is all about using the knowledge in front of us in a new way (as we looked at last time in Innovation Happens Inside The Box), clearly defining what we’re aiming to achieve right at the beginning is most definitely a good thing.

We’re not trying to wander aimlessly until we’re struck with inspiration. Instead, we set out by choosing the right constraints from the start, which can focus our efforts and help us reach the finishing line. Setting the right boundaries and constraints stops us from continually chasing the next idea or improvement.

There’s a step that comes before that which we need to think about though. In our excitement to start the “real work”, this first step is all too easy to overlook.

Where to Begin

Before we begin anything else, the first job is to really understand the problem we’re trying to solve. Even when it doesn’t look like it at first glance, everything we develop or innovate exists because it solves a problem.

It’s very unusual to create something new in isolation, for the sake of creating something new. We don’t often blindly pursue technological advances for nothing. We do it all because we’re looking for solutions to problems.

Instead of jumping straight into a spec or solution, it’s well worth spending the time truly getting to grips with what that problem is. Perhaps it’s purely around technical capability or what the solution will enable us to do as a result. Perhaps it’s a purely commercial problem where we’re looking to do the same things in a more efficient or effective way. Perhaps it’s something else.

Every piece of work we undertake exists because we’re trying to solve a problem. In fact, quite often there are a couple of problem statements in play, depending on which interested party you ask.

How to do it

Before you begin anything else, it’s important to know what those problem statements are. After all, if every innovation or development program is delivering a solution, the only way to guarantee success is to fully understand the problem that solution needs to address.

There have been entire books written on this topic, which still don’t manage to capture everything, so we certainly won’t be able to do a thorough job here. But even asking the question “What’s the real problem I’m trying to solve?” before you begin the work will put you ahead of a huge number of people.

In an effort to get things moving in the right direction, here is the first step I take when approaching a new project or development program. To begin with I simply ask myself these questions (and if I can’t work out the answers, I’ll ask around or have a guess)

  • Who are your stakeholders (the people interested in the work, the problem or the solution, in any way)?
  • What do they want?

Next, I’ll take my list of stakeholders and go and speak with as many of them as I can. I’ll definitely try to talk to each “major stakeholder”, or those who seem to have more at stake in this than most.  In those conversations, I’m trying to work out how close to the truth my answers to the second question were, and who else I forgot to even consider in the first place.

From those conversations, usually, the real problem(s) start to emerge. They tend to give me an understanding of the problem which would have been difficult to reach without them. And that can be incredibly helpful in shaping the work that follows.

A little disclaimer before I wrap up: It’s important to use your common sense with this. I’m not advocating that you conduct extensive interviews with every employee of your company when you’ve been asked to complete a minor task. If the work is small, the problem is probably also small and/or well understood already. In that case, a quick check-in with whoever gave you the task might be enough.

Start by understanding the problem though. Truly getting to grips with the problem will make it so much easier to find the right solution.


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

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