Problem-Solving Success Tip: Measure


The first key question to answer in starting a problem-solving project is, “How will you know when the problem is solved?” Answer this question in measurable terms before you start trying to solve the problem. As you begin defining your problem, these success metrics help set clear expectations about what will be different when you finish. At the end of the project, the measurements will demonstrate that the difference has been achieved, i.e., the problem has been solved.

To be useful, success measurements must be simple in concept and connected so clearly to the problem that you can remember them easily. As with the description, somebody who doesn’t already know about the problem should be able to read your success criteria and understand them.

The objective in setting success metrics for a problem-solving project is to define the minimum necessary to solve the problem. This is completely opposite to the way we usually set goals. In problem-solving, we want to do everything necessary to solve the problem, but nothing extra.

Once you decide what your success metrics will be, check them with real data. This not only verifies that you really can collect and report the measurements, but also lets you establish baselines. Measure exactly what your performance is before you start analyzing the problem and taking corrective action. The baseline measurements let you confirm that there really is a problem and sanity checks the performance levels you’ve defined as success. You can make corrections if necessary, before you start down a wrong path.

Measure to determine that the problem is solved, but also use measurements throughout the problem-solving process. Measurements can also help you test assumptions, verify root causes, assure tasks are completed properly and report progress.

Bottom line: if you don’t measure, you won’t know for sure. Use measurements to learn and portray the truth – the real truth, not what you wish were true.

Copyright 2009. Jeanne Sawyer.

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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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