Why We Need to Define the Bigger Problem*

“Houston, We Have a Problem”

When Apollo 13 astronauts reported an explosion on their space module, NASA’s Houston Mission Control contemplated on continuing the mission and land on the moon.  It was only when NASA realized that the problems were life-threatening that it was decided to abort the mission and to have the astronauts return to Earth safely. 

We tend to define problems by its symptoms and how it affects our agenda.  NASA had an agenda to get Apollo 13 to the moon and at first stuck to that mission even with the reports of an explosion and the resulting problems. 

We apply this thinking in our daily lives. 

If we get sick, the first thing we look for is medicine to relieve pain and discomfort.  

If our car won’t start in the morning, we look under the hood to see if there is a quick fix.  If we can’t find any, we hail a taxi or find a ride via Uber or Grab so we won’t be late to wherever we’re going.  Car repair comes later when we have time or we delegate it to someone else to do the fixing. 

We try to solve problems with remedies and quick fixes that as much as possible won’t interfere with our agenda.  We almost all to often react to problems as obstacles that are to be removed or bypassed via the easiest means possible.

Hence, when it comes to problems, we all too often seek solutions as soon as possible.  

We classify problems as either big or small.  A small problem has an obvious and easy solution.  A big problem needs figuring out, planning, and allocation of resources. 

But sometimes a problem, whether big or small, is part of a bigger problem that may not be apparent. 

A bigger problem may be a root cause for the smaller problems or a flaw in a system that has yet to be detected.  It can also be an opportunity which is manifesting itself in a changing environment.

For example, a small online retail business that is experiencing steadily growing sales has hired more people to meet the growing demand.  The head count has grown to a point where preparing the payroll has become more time-consuming and complicated.  The business owners, in response, install a customized payroll system and train clerks to run it.  After a while, the business owners notice the overhead costs are going up so they engage an accountant to streamline the budgeting and charging of expenses.  Profits do grow but the accountant’s reports show rapid increases in the costs of rent, insurance, and electricity.  The business owners hire a consultant who recommends renegotiating the contracts for rent, finding another insurance provider, and buying a more efficient air-conditioning system that uses less electricity.

Finally, the business owners realize that their business is just getting too big to manage on their own so they form a partnership with an investor who infuses capital and hires professional executives.  The online business becomes a bigger company that grows tenfold in succeeding years

The online retail business company addressed problems as they came but wasn’t aware of the bigger problem until it became apparent.  The business was just getting too big to manage.  

Solving the bigger problem begins with a fuzzy situation.  The online retail business is getting too big.  That’s a fuzzy situation.  It spurs questions.  Why is it getting too big?  What makes us say it is getting too big?  How did it become too big? 

Answering the questions from the fuzzy situation provides information about the problem behind the fuzzy situation.  The information becomes the springboard to clarify what the problem is all about.  The online retail business is getting too big from the higher sales.  The organization has grown in head count.  Costs to accommodate the higher head count such as rent, insurance, and electricity have gone up.  The business has hired more people to manage the head count. 

From the information gathered, the business can then begin to define the problem.  Defining the problem does not necessarily mean identifying a cause or an issue.  One should avoid the pitfall of jumping to a conclusion such as, in the online business example, saying that the the business has become unproductive because of the higher head count.

Defining the problem requires asking in-depth questions.  How can we manage the business better in lieu of higher sales?  How might we become more productive?  In what ways can we reduce costs? 

The online retail business selected the first question:  how can we manage the business better in lieu of higher sales.  The owners chose this question as the one that defined the problem based on criteria.  That criteria come from the business owners’ mission, goals, and strategy.  The online business wanted to be a fast-growing company with high market share and revenue within five (5) years.  Hence, the owners chose the question “how can we manage the business better in lieu of higher sales” as their problem.

It doesn’t stop there.  The problem may be defined more sharply over more information and thought.  The problem may become “how might we increase sales without incurring higher costs?”  Or “how might we expand our product lines without having to hire more people?” 

It is when the owners settle on a specific question that they would have defined their problem. 

*originally published on February 8, 2019 on LinkedIn

About Overtimers Anonymous

The Feasibility Study Ends with a Plan, Not A Solution

The feasibility study consists of the following steps:

  • Defining the Problem
  • Brainstorming Possible Solutions
  • Developing Criteria for the Solution
  • Evaluation and Selection of the Solution
  • Assessing the Solution’s Practicality and Benefits
  • Making a Plan

It starts with defining the problem.  It ends with a plan.

A lot of people make the mistake of ending a feasibility study with a solution. 

After they have the answer, many of them neglect to ask “what’s next?” 

They rely on the stakeholders to figure that last step out.  That’s a big mistake because most of the time, the stakeholders have no clue as to how to do so. 

The process of finding a solution begins with brainstorming.  This is already controversial as some would argue that one should first set criteria for whatever idea or answer is presented.

What inventory and procurement policy should we establish? 

Brainstormed ideas:

  • Buy only when customer orders?
  • Eliminate all items except ten (10) fast-selling products?
  • Keep no stock of top 20 most expensive items to make?
  • Have a single exclusive vendor for each material item and make vendor accountable for inventory?
  • Have at least three (3) suppliers per material item purchased and keep at least one (1) month’s equivalent worth of sales per item? 
  • Put all inventory on a huge container vessel that would constantly be at sea and move from one port to the next to load and unload merchandise?

Brainstorming comes first because it is a no-holds barred free-thinking exercise that allows minds to capture all the thoughts possible to address the problem.  Nothing is filtered or evaluated.  Every thought is acceptable and listed.

Criteria comes afterward but they should relate to values, principles, and strategic objectives. 

Examples of Criteria:

  1. Solution has to be easy to implement;
  2. There should be minimal risk in running out-of-stock;
  3. There should be minimal investment in training and education:
  4. Material costs should not increase;
  5. Working capital should decrease.    

Brainstormed ideas are then filtered based on the criteria.  Those that obviously wouldn’t fit are thrown out outright.  The ideas that qualify would remain.

The remaining ideas then pass through an evaluation process. 

The evaluation process is mostly an intuitive one.  Whereas defining a problem depends a great deal on data gathering, analyses, and presentation of evidence, evaluating candidates in search for the best idea or answer to a problem is mostly done via perception and insight. 

We weigh candidates against the criteria we developed earlier.  The weighing is an attempt at rational calculation but most of how we do it is based on opinion.  We predict benefits on what we think will happen, not really with any rationale. 

A feasibility study is a contrast between the rational definition of a problem and the intuitive search for a solution.  That’s why as soon as a solution is selected, we need to refine it and move forward to developing it into a plan on how to make it into a reality. 

Refining the selected solution or idea is simply clarification of what we think needs to be done.  Whereas a problem is best described in the form of a question, a solution should come out in the form of an action plan.

As an action plan, a solution or selected idea should follow a SMAC format.  It should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, but Challenging. 

We will develop an ABC Inventory & Purchasing Policy. 

A feasibility study ends with a plan, not a recommended solution. Solutions are intuitive but a plan brings it into reality. 

With a plan, an organisation will know what to do next. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Admitting Not Knowing What to Do Is The First Step to Problem-Solving

At the height of the Second World War, Great Britain was on the brink of defeat.  The Nazis had conquered the European mainland.  German U-boat submarines were sinking merchant ships from America, constricting critical supplies to the United Kingdom.  The German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, was bombing London and other British cities at will, inflicting heavy casualties.  The British leadership didn’t know what to do. 

          The British government engaged the help of its most brilliant scientists to find technological breakthroughs that would perhaps give the English armed forces some advantage in weaponry.  The scientists, consisting of physicists, mathematicians, and even biologists, found out that technology wasn’t the problem, but rather in the manner the military managed its operations. 

          For example, the scientists led by physicist Patrick Blackett1, found that anti-aircraft (AA) batteries defending London were shooting pointlessly against German Luftwaffe bombers because only 30 out of 120 of the guns had access to radar data to track incoming targets.  Blackett’s science group recommended re-deployment of the anti-aircraft batteries so all of the guns would have access to the radar data.  Whereas before it took 20,000 AA rounds to shoot down a German bomber, the number was reduced to 4,000 rounds per shoot-down after the re-deployment.  Anti-aircraft accuracy improved by 80%. 

          Blackett also introduced operational solutions to defeat the German U-boats.  His colleague, E. J. Williams2, also a physicist, suggested changes in how British bombers searched and targeted U-boats.  By changing the timing and placing of depth charges, and by simply repainting planes from black to white to make them less likely to be spotted in the daytime sky, the British was able to increase the kill rate of U-boats from 1 to 2 per cent to 10 percent, a 1000% improvement. 

          British leaders at their darkest hour of the war admitted they didn’t know what to do.  They went to their scientists for answers.  When they did, they found out that the issue wasn’t about searching for the right answers but defining the problems rightly.   By just knowing what problems to solve and solving them, the British and their Allies were able to defeat the Nazis and win the Second World War. 

          Eighty (80) years later, the world again is in a crisis.  The COVID-19 pandemic has sickened more than a million people and brought businesses to a halt.  More than three (3) billion people worldwide are in lockdowns. 

          Despite the efforts, government and business leaders do not have a unified front versus the pandemic.  They have engaged medical experts who have urged quarantines, personal hygiene, and social distancing.  There is no prospect for an early cure or a vaccine.  No one has a firm idea how long this crisis will last.  No one leader, it seems, knows what to do. 

          Admitting not knowing what to do should not be seen as shameful.  Rather, it should be seen as a first step to solving a problem.   

          We have gotten used to finding solutions quickly for most of our problems.   In our fast-paced world, we like to get obstacles out of our way as fast as we can. 

          But not all problems can be solved outright.  Sometimes, and it’s getting more often, we have to admit that we just don’t know what to do.  We need to realize it may be better to engage other resources or talents to define our problems rightly before finding the right answers.

1Stephen Budiansky, Blackett’s War, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) Kindle Edition, Chapter 6, Loc 2846

2Ibid, Kindle Edition, Chapter 7, Loc 2982 to 3047