Problem Statement Framing

A well-framed problem statement opens possibilities, while a bad problem statement closes down alternatives and quickly sends you down dead ends of facile thinking.

Consider a few typical problem statements you might hear during a management review:

  1. We have too many deviations
  2. We do not have enough people to process the deviations we get
  3. 45% of deviations are recurring

You hear this sort of framing regularly. Notice that only the third is a problem, the other two are solutions. And in the case of the first statement it can leave to some negative results. The second just has you throw more resources at the problem, which may or may not be a good thing. In both cases we are biasing the problem-solving process just as we begin.

The third problem statement pushes us to think. A measurable fact raises other questions that will help us develop better solutions: why are out deviations recurring? Why are we not solving issues when they first occur? What processes/areas are they recurring in? Are we putting the right amount of effort on important deviations? How can we eliminate these deviations?

If a problem statement has only one solution, reframe it to avoid jumping to conclusions.

By focusing on a problem statement with objective facts (45% of deviations are recurring) we can ask deeper, thoughtful questions which will lead to wisdom, and to better solutions.

To build a good problem statement:

  1. Begin with observable facts, not opinions, judgments, or interpretations.
  2. Describe what is happening by answering questions like “How much/How many/How long/How often.” This creates room for exploration and discovery.
  3. Iterate on the problem statement. As you think more deeply on the situation modify your first version. This is a sign that you understand more about the situation. This is the kind of data that will join with the facts you discover to lead towards sound decisions.

The 5W2H tool is always a good place to start.

5W2HTypical questionsContains
Who?Who are the people directly concerned with the problem? Who does this? Who should be involved but wasn’t? Was someone involved who shouldn’t be?Roles and Departments
What?What happened?Action, steps, description
When?When did the problem occur?Times, dates, place In process
Where?Where did the problem occur?Location
Why is it important?Why did we do this? What are the requirements? What is the expected condition?Justification, reason
How?How did we discover. Where in the process was it?Method, process, procedure
How Many? How Much?How many things are involved? How often did the situation happen? How much did it impact?Number, frequency

Remember this can be iterative as you discover more information and the problem statement at the end might not necessarily be the problem statement at the beginning.

ElementsProblem Statement
Is used to…Understand and target a problem.
Provide a scope.
Evaluate any risks.
Make objective decisions
Answers the following… (5W2H)What? (problem that occurred)
When? (timing of what occurred)
Where? (location of what occurred)
Who? (persons involved/observers)
Why? (why it matters, not why it occurred)
How Much/Many? (volume or count)
How Often? (First/only occurrence or multiple)
Contains…Object (What was affected?) Defect (What went wrong?)
Provides direction for…Escalation(s)  Investigation

Vision and Psychology Safety Enable Change

Professor Amy Edmondson in 2016 wrote “Wicked-Problem Solvers” in HBR that laid out four leadership levers for collaboration that fit nicely into quality culture and nestle nicely with Kotter’s Eight Accelerators. Together they help define the leadership behaviors necessary to build quality culture, all informed by the enabler of knowledge management.

Levers and Accelerators of change

Professor Edmondson in this article is discussing cross-industry collaboration, but the central four levers apply in any organization.

Having a vision that strives for a True North of Quality is critical. Make it align to individual needs. Remember that vision grows and adapts as you go, and as others get the opportunity to shape. Vision has six criteria:

  1. Stimulus: Vision needs to include actual benefits for those affected by it. String vision brings people together as community, not as strangers. Stimulus means people see themselves in the vision and understand how they will benefit.
  2. Scale: Vision should be of great breadth and depth with potential for extension at later stages. Vision never leads to or accepts a dead end. It shows multiple potentials for expansion.
  3. Spotlight: Vision assumes responsibility, immediate and extended. The greater the vision, then the greater the responsibility for its impact on people’s lives and the legacy that will be left afterwards. This responsibility needs to bring opportunity for people who are involved. This is part of the vision that will drive the volunteer army.
  4. Scanning: A visionary sees the signs on the way to success. Pay attention to to pain points, spot trends and see where and how value can be added. Gemba walks are critical here.
  5. Simplicity: Vision is elegant thinking about complicated and complex things. A vision is not a vision unless it’s understood. Simplicity lets people believe in vision. If the vision is complicated most people will ignore it. Vision operates and makes execution possible from its simplicity. The simpler the vision in its core meaning, the easier it can be shared with employees, customers and partners and thus, easier to scale inside and outside an organization.
  6. Passion: Vision provokes strong emotions. A strong vision is always accompanied by excitement and passion. Excitement equals passion that gives an emotional power to a vision. A strong vision brings strong excitement that is difficult to contain. Strong excitement and passion are highly contagious. A simple and compelling vision excites more passion than any mere goal.

Psychological safety is the state where employees feel that there is safety in taking risks at work setting. In this safe environment employees will engage in risk-taking actions that are inherent to creative endeavors and if they perceive safety, then they are more comfortable to voice their opinions. This safety makes them more willing to take the chances to own the vision and try to experiment with making that vision a reality which motivates them to develop, promote, and implement new ideas.

This safety will enable knowledge sharing, which can come in many different styles, including combination which creates something new.

Through inclusive, democratic leaders who value the inclusion of employees in a particular work process, employees have the chance to raise their voice for generating, promoting, and implementing useful ideas
Through leveraging vision these inclusive leaders exhibit openness attributes that communicates the importance of taking innovative actions and gives employees the guarantee that in case of negative consequences they will not be punished, experiencing greater psychological safety.

Employees experience non-defensive behavior, and feel high levels of self-worth and self-identity, motivating employees not only to generate new ideas, but also to promote and implement new ideas in the organization.

The organization that is structured to accept these ideas will continue to drive iterative cycles of improvement.

Teams reason better

Teams collaborate better than individuals on a wide range of problem-solving for two reason:

  • People are exposed to points of view different from their own. If the arguments are good enough, people can change their mind to adopt better beliefs. This requires structure, such as “Yes…but…and
  • The back-and-forth of a conversation allows people to address counterarguments, and thus to refine their arguments, making it more likely that the best argument carries the day.

Both of these work to reduce bias and subjectivity.

Principles of Team Collaboration

There are a few principles to make this team collaboration work.

  • Clear purpose: What is the reason for the collaboration? What’s the business case or business need? Without alignment on the purpose and its underlying importance to the organization, the collaboration will fail. The scope will start to change, or other priorities will take precedence. 
  • Clear process: How will the collaboration take place? What are the steps? What is the timing? Who is responsible for what?
  • Clear expectations: What is the specific goal or outcome we are striving for through this collaboration? 
  • Clear supportProblems will arise that the team cannot handle on their own. In those cases, what is the escalation process, including who and when? 

Ensure these are in your team ground rules, measure success and perform continuous improvement.

Curiosity

Curiosity is a superpower that enables us to improve our lives. Empathic curiosity allows people to listen thoughtfully and see problems or decisions from another’s perspective, not to criticize or judge, but to understand. Asking questions promotes more meaningful connections and more creative outcomes. When we carefully listen to the answers we seek, we build better relationships faster, fuel employee engagement, and reduce conflict.

George Mason and Patrick McKnight created a five-dimensional model of curiosity that can help us understand curiosity and how to nurture it.

The first dimension, deprivation sensitivity, causes us to recognize a gap in our knowledge. Filling it offers relief. This type of curiosity doesn’t necessarily feel good, but it causes us to feel better once we have a solution to a problem. For instance, a trip to the emergency room will give answers to the question about whether a person has had a heart attack. Both a “yes” or “no” answer will satisfy our curiosity.

The second dimension, joyous exploration, causes us to be consumed with wonder about the fascinating features of the world. This exploration produces pleasure among those curious enough to pursue answers.

The third dimension, social curiosity, encourages us to talk, listen, and observe others to learn what they are thinking and doing. Since we are inherently social animals, we find communication the most effective and efficient way to gain information that will allow us to determine whether someone is friend or foe. Some may even snoop, eavesdrop, or gossip to do so.

The fourth dimension, stress tolerance, relates to our willingness to accept and even harness the anxiety associated with novelty. People who lack stress tolerance see information gaps, experience wonder, and have an interest in others, but they don’t tend to satisfy their curiosity by stepping forward and exploring.

The fifth dimension, thrill seeking, goes beyond tolerating stress to embracing a willingness to take physical, social, and financial risks to acquire varied, complex, and intense experiences. For people with this capacity, the anxiety of confronting novelty is something to be amplified, not reduced.

Curiosity is the catalyst that brings job satisfaction, motivation, innovation, and high performance. It fosters collaboration and fortifies organizational resilience by prompting creative problem-​ solving in the face of uncertainty and pressure.

Good leaders build and reward curiosity in their organizations by:

  • Rewarding creative failures. Recognize the value of effort and experimentation, even when it fails.
  • Understand that curious people learn quickly and bore easily. Encourage continuous growth and learning.
  • Give ever-​challenging work and real authority to make a difference.
  • Make organizations places where the curious choose to work and become magnets for other top performers.
  • Give direction in the form of democratic guidance, not an absence of direction. Don’t micromanage. If you try to micromanage a curious person just a little, you will lose that person.
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Three year retrospective

This blog is three years old and my experiences as a practitioner of quality and as a leader has been driven during this time by narrative writing. Writing gives the space and time to look back, re-live and re-experience, and ultimately reflect upon our work. Writing these blog posts is an effective way of digesting experience on the job. Through
writing this blog I have attempted to understand situations from various viewpoints and perspectives.

I get asked a lot why I do this, and how I make time for writing. Let’s be honest, there are long periods of time where I do not. But when I do make the time it is for these reasons.

Writing as a catalyst for reflective thought

In an era where lifelong professional learning is continuously promoted, professionals need to continuously learn and take the role of practitioner-researcher. The narrative writing I engage in on this blog plays an important role that aids this ongoing development. Through writing I enhance my reflective awareness.

Writing helps reduce the imbalance I feel between theory and practice. Too often we need to make immediate decisions and it is difficult to balance what-must-happen with what-should-happen. Writing this blog allows me to think critically about my past actions and how these together with theory can inform future practice.

Writing this blog is a way of thinking that helps me in understanding myself; my own actions; my thoughts; my emotions; my experiences. Apart from self-understanding, self-reflective narrative also assists professional learning because it aids professional thinking. In short, writing helps me think, reflect, and develop. I write, therefore I think.

First-order narratives: promoting self-understanding

The narratives in this blog are first-order narratives where I write about my own experiences, as opposed to second-order narratives where the author writes about the experiences of others. Everything I write starts as a challenge or an experience I am processing. This blog rarely engages in journalistic reporting, and when it does report on the news it is always part of reflection.

Through writing about my experiences as a quality professional, and reflecting on them, I strive to construct meanings, interpretations, new knowledge and understandings.

By engaging in systematic reflection I am promoting questioning, and questioning encourages me to think of new possibilities. This is where ideas come from, and this drives my professional quality practice forward.

Conversing with oneself

Conversing with someone else offers the possibility of feedback and exposure to different viewpoints. This is why I look to professional societies as one way to enhance my work. I’ll be honest though that is not as easy as I would like it to be.

Unfortunately, I often feel isolated. People are busy and it is difficult to carve out the time for reflection and discussion. It can often feel that collaboration and sharing about non-project deliverables are limited to non-existent at worst. By blogging I am conversing with myself in public. It would be great to engage in dialogue with people, but I feel this public dialogue is a way to engage with the larger body of knowledge.

I think this is one of the reasons I blogged less after starting my current job. All my time was going into collaborative narratives as I strove to determine what came next in this new role.

Looking deeper into issues

Sitting down and writing a blog post offers time for reflective thought. Sure, I talk about these issues all day, but writing journal entries, because I tend to think about it a lot more, allows me to explore additional dimensions of the issue. Narrative writing affords me the space for focused reflective thinking. This blog is my medium for reflection, questioning, critical analysis, thinking, reasoning, and the building of arguments.

Often I write in preparation for some task or project. Or to analyze how it is progressing and to solve problems.

Creating causal links

A narrative should have an evaluative function; offering valuable information about how the author interprets and connects meanings to lived situations and experiences. A narrative must add up to something; it is more than the sum
of its parts. Through writing this blog I am connecting the various parts of quality that are important to me in a wider whole. And by crafting that whole, develop new learnings to apply.

Blogging is tiring but valuable

I have experienced periods of tiredness, frustration, and a lessened motivation to blog, and this resonates with the argument that practitioners are usually so busy that they have little time for their own writing. This has especially been true during the last year of this pandemic.

However, I strongly view this blog as a core part of my learning, and that learning benefits from the longitudinal process of blogging. Writing about my experiences as a quality professional has promoted detailed observations of my work, analysis of that work, imagined solutions, implementation of such imagined solutions, and re-analysis of alterations to practice. Writing this blog has been an ideal way of showing experiential learning and my own development.

What comes next?

I set myself a goal of writing at least one post a day in March, and I found that amazingly rewarding. Not sure if I can keep that pace up but I am committed to continuing to use this blog space for reflection and development. I hope folks find some use out of that, and I look forward to the various communities this space engenders.

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