Problems and Solutions

Take time to understand the problem

As a society, we have a solution fetish. “I don’t want problems, I want solutions!” If interviewing for a job, you want to be seen as “solution-focused.” It’s bad to bring your boss a problem— take the next step, and bring a solution! People who focus on problems are complainers. Losers. Downers. Don’t be one of them, the mantra goes.

I disagree. I think focusing on problems is important, useful, and ultimately helps us arrive at better solutions.

In our rush to find solutions, we do not give sufficient thought to the problem. This is an issue because frequently, we lack clarity about what the problem is that we actually face. A lack of clarity about the problem leads to lackluster solutions– and frequently, the problem comes back. Or, we end up solving problems that are not really problems at all.

One common place this comes up is around money– specifically, people feel that they do not have enough of it. Money might not make you happy, but a lack of money can definitely make you unhappy. However, if the problem is defined as I need more money, my first question is usually Why? What would more money do for you? How would it solve your day-to-day problems? When we start to ask questions about the problem, there are all kinds of things we might discover. For example, I need more money so I can have time to spend with my family. Ok– why don’t you have time to spend with your family now? Because I’m working all the time. Ok– so is the problem money, or is the problem that you don’t have enough time to spend with your family? If time with the family is the real problem, then there are a range of solutions that might be appropriate and a range of things that may be causing the problem in the first place. But, that is certainly not the same problem as not having enough money.

When we have only a superficial understanding of the problem that is in front of us, when we have haphazardly or poorly defined the problem, it is hard to focus on sensible solutions. Our solutions might fix something, but they are just as likely to be ineffectual or to fix the wrong thing. Or just as likely, we solve the surface-level problem, but the underlying issue remains. We make more money, but we are still dissatisfied because the problem was never about money per se, but about time. When we do not clearly understand our problem, what hope do we have of solving it?

One concrete strategy for addressing this comes from Toyota manufacturing, and is called “Ask why five times.” Sakichi Toyoda founded Toyoda, and was a Japanese industrialist and inventor. He developed the 5 Whys technique in the 1930s. It is a popular technique, still used at Toyota and in Lean Manufacturing today. The idea is to start with a problem, and then repeatedly ask Why five times. It is useful in business, but it is also useful in our personal life. The idea is that by continuing to ask why, we get a higher likelihood of arriving at a true root cause. The actual number of times to ask why does not have to be exactly 5; the idea is to keep going until an actionable root cause has been identified.

To illustrate this, think about the problem of having trouble waking up and getting out of bed in the morning. Why? Because I’m tired. Why? Because I didn’t go to sleep until 1 AM. Why? Because I was working late. Why? Because I constantly have more work to do than I have time to do it. Why? Because my boss keeps giving me additional assignments. Why? Because she thinks I have time to do them. Why? Because I have not had a conversation with her about how much work I’ve actually taken on…

This may or may not be an example that is highly relevant for you, but hopefully, it helps illustrate how two things that seem unrelated (morning fatigue and work dynamics) are actually interrelated. Moreover, taking the problem at face value, without an understanding of the underlying drivers, would likely lead to solutions that are unlikely to be effective (like setting two alarm clocks). If we set two alarm clocks (and then slept through them both) we start to tell ourselves unhelpful stories: I’m weak, undisciplined, lazy, something is wrong with me. All these thoughts stem from a lack of clear problem definition.

Ok, take a practice round. Think of something that is troubling you or a problem you are facing, something that is not going as you would like. Ask yourself why. Why is this a problem? Why is this happening? Keep going, asking the question repeatedly. Don’t stop on the first, second, or third reason you come up with, but keep interrogating it. Ask why to the point of absurdity (sometimes it’s easiest to see when you’ve taken something far enough by taking it too far). Did you arrive at a new insight? A new perspective? A different approach?

Keep this approach in your back pocket. The next time you are confronted with a problem, pause before jumping to a solution. Understand the problem. Ask why.

-Dr. Justin