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Solving The Right Problem (And How To Save Yourself A Headache When You’re Done)

Posted on February 23rd, 2016 by in Chemical R&D


At a basic level, an engineers role is to solve problems. Charged with designing, defining, building, making and implementing solutions, it’s an engineers job to address a particular need and fix or improve something. Whether the solution is in the form of a physical product, a process, a piece of computer code or anything else doesn’t really matter. They’re all ways of solving problems.

If all of that is true, then it’s incredibly important to fully understand the problems that are being solved. How else would we be able to come up with a suitable solution?

But fully understanding the problem is a step in the process that so many engineers overlook. We tend to race through and jump straight into defining the solution. We come up with designs, drawings, layouts and diagrams, which are all based on our initial understanding of the problem. And that’s how things fall through the cracks. That’s how we end up solving the wrong problem.

Here’s an example to show you what I mean. Imagine you’re tasked with designing a kettle to boil water for hot drinks. You might think, “that’s simple – I can jump straight into a design for something like that”. So you go ahead and choose a casing with a spout, a handle, a heating element, a plug, a switch to turn the heating element on and a temperature sensor to switch it off again. You get everything drawn up and designed. You test a prototype and everything seems to work properly, so your design goes into production.

You might do all of that and think you’ve solved the problem. But you’ve actually designed a kettle that will only work properly in certain places around the world. Although you’ll have designed something that heats water to a certain temperature, the actual problem was to design something that boils water. And they’re not the same thing. The temperature sensor that switches the heating element off will not do it’s job properly in areas with different atmospheric pressure, because the boiling point of water is not the same everywhere. Spending a bit more time fleshing out the problem initially would have pointed towards using a pressure sensor inside the kettle instead of a temperature sensor, since that’s a way to measure whether the water is boiling or not.

That’s a trivial example, but I’ve seen engineers jump straight to solutions like this on projects large and small. Spending the time up front to fully understand the problem you’re solving is the one of the most important tasks in making sure you get the right solution. Getting to the end of the design process and then realizing you’ve been tackling the wrong problem is not a good feeling. It’s a massive headache and very difficult, and expensive, to undo. So put in the time up front. Flesh out the problem fully and make sure you’re solving the right one.


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