Problem-Solving Success Tip: Define the Problem First

It seems obvious, but how many times have we gone to a problem-solving meeting and the discussion started with either whose fault was it or an assertion about the proper solution?

Instead, start by explaining what the problem is – what went wrong, what the symptoms are, what the impact on your business and your customer’s business is. These are the things that someone knows at this point in the problem solving process. If the someone is not you, and you’re leading the problem-solving effort, you need to do some research to find out. No guesses or assumptions allowed: the problem description must give the facts clearly and accurately.

Write it down. Writing the problem down forces you to describe it carefully, completely and unambiguously. The statement is a valuable tool to help focus your team on the real problem and avoid wasting time on extraneous issues. Everyone who reads it should understand what the problem is and why it’s important. No jumping ahead, either: you don’t know yet what caused the problem much less what you will do to fix it.

The written statement can also be used as a “sales tool” to explain what problem you’re solving and why it’s important. Use it to make sure you have the support you’ll need from management, your customer and any other key players. This is especially important if the significance of the problem is not universally understood or accepted.

The problem is defined when everybody who reads your problem statement, including you, understands what will be different when the problem is solved and your team agrees that it describes the correct problem.

Copyright 2007. Jeanne Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.

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About the Author:

Jeanne Sawyer helps her clients solve expensive, chronic problems, such as those that cause operational disruptions and cause customers to take their business elsewhere. These tips are excerpted from her book, When Stuff Happens: A Practical Guide to Solving Problems Permanently. Now also an ebook, find out about it and get more free information on problem solving at her web site:

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