Problem Statements That Lead to Solutions – Solving Problems Requires Effective Problem Statements

One of the most overlooked, yet most powerful techniques in problem solving is how to make problem statements. A problem that is not clearly and concisely stated (defined) is usually difficult to solve. Many times engineers, supervisors, managers and others fail to clearly identify and define problems. Failing to properly define the problem leads to frustration in problem solving. Let’s use an example of pump seal failures in a particular processing area to illustrate.

An engineer comes into the maintenance office and says, “we’ve got a problem with pump seal failures on raw material (RM) feed pumps in the AA-12 area.” Being on top of the issue, so he thinks, the maintenance supervisor issues the necessary paperwork to change out the seals in all five pumps in the AA-12 area during the July 4 shutdown. A few days after start-up, you guessed it; the engineer is back with the same “problem.” Now what? After the finger-pointing and discussion ends, our two problem solving heroes are back at work changing out pump seals again…to no avail.

Now, what can we do to prevent such scenarios? Making a clear, focused and concise problem statement that uses actual data in the statement would help. What can the engineer do differently? Let’s see how we can help our heroes.

Instead of having a seal failure problem, the engineer could say, “we’ve got seal failures on RM feed pumps in the AA-12 area with pumps 2 and 4.” Well, this is better, but still not really a “good” problem statement. Ask “Why?” and it will lead you to the real problem in most cases. “Why do we have seal failures on these pumps?” This leads our engineer to the real problem statement that is much more precise.

The better statement of the problem would be we “we have had seal failures on pumps 2 and 4 in the AA-12 area during the three of the last five start-ups.” Now, we have a statement that can focus our efforts on a real problem solution rather than simply changing pump seals. By employing proper problem solving tools and knowledgeable people, we can solve the real problem; in other words find and eliminate the root cause. In this case, from a real world example, the problem was in the valve opening and pressure sequences specified in the start-up procedure NOT a seal problem with a particular vendor’s seals or pumps. Changing the procedures solved the problem. Without a concise and clear problem statement, many hours and dollars could’ve been spent on the “wrong” problem.

Next time you have a problem in your processes, focus your efforts on the real problem and not just the symptom. Attempt to get to the real problem by asking “why?” about five times after you make your first attempt at defining or stating the problem. This technique, known as “The 5 Why’s” is one of the simplest, yet most powerful tools for effective problem solving. It will usually lead you to the problem statement that enables you to focus on solving the real problem. Also, it’s a good idea to get the problem stated in twenty words or less. More than twenty and you’ve got a paragraph to deal with instead of a specific problem. Try it, you’ll experience the benefits!