A framework for thinking about problems - Part 4

Problems vs Symptoms

This is a mistake many people make, and they make it all the time, so let’s revisit the example above.

Equipment constantly breaking may have been identified as the problem. A typical response to this ‘problem’ would be to replace the equipment; only to find that pretty soon the new equipment keeps breaking down.With only a little thought, once should realise that breaking equipment is not the problem, but rather a symptom, and that we need an actual cause. 

This is where this typology comes into its own.

Using this framework will:
Help you frame the real problem (not the symptom)
Help you approach the solution from a holistic perspective
Help organise the response in a way that ensures you have effective alignment bakes into your solution

Example 1

Let’s say the business has identified that the source (or area) it has a problem in, is MACHINE -  i.e. technology/ Infrastructure to conduct business. This can be refined with more detail. You may identify the issues for instance as specifically being a particular piece of IT infrastructure, or even more specifically the Intranet or you can have an issue with ageing plant & equipment in the factory.

(Note: The 7th element, shared values or culture, being the result of the interplay of the other 6 elements, is usually symptomatic of a problem rather than the actual problem.)

Considering your technology/ machine problem above - and let’s assume it is Plant & Equipment in your factory. I will only ask one leading question per element for the sake of example. In the real world, you will ask many more.

You have six avenues to explore the problem, and example questions are:

  • Is your STRATEGY in terms of asset management effective?
  • Is the organisation and all its resources organised (STRUCTURED) in such a way that the management of these assets are appropriate?
  • Are the SYSTEMS in place to monitor the uses of the plant?
  • Do we have the right people (STAFF) in place manage the equipment?
  • Do they have the right SKILLS to do their jobs?
  • Are we effectively leading them (STYLE) with the right levels of motivation and empowerment to achieve the results.

When you start digging into the problems from these six perspectives, you may find that one issue is the dominant one. For instance, you just don’t have the right monitoring systems, and that is why the machines always break down. The staff, their skills the leadership etc. may all be in good shape, and you can then focus on fixing the problem.

And even if you can’t identify a simple problem, you will get greater clarity on the nature and the dynamics of complex problems.

Example 2

Let’s say an organisation has poor sales.

That is NOT a problem, it is a symptom. To identify the problem, you may want to use this framework to identify/eliminate possible problems.

You will first identify the CATEGORY of problem (resource problem, opportunity problem or context problem.) Each of these categories of problem have common elements to how they are solved. 

Each category of problem can be further subdivided into sub-categories. Your resources problem could be related to capital or could be related to technology etc. (The further categorisation again facilitates better understanding and greater specificity, and allows you to see complex problems as mentioned earlier.)

You do this through your forensic questioning:
Is this a problem because of my <Insert category here>.

With due consideration, you will identify those categories and subcategories that impact your sales figures.

Assume you have identified the primary problem as relating to your product-market fit, and specifically that it relates to the ‘market’. 

As above, you do this through your forensic questioning:
Is this a problem because of my <Insert element here>.

This is to assess whether it relates to your strategy in selection (designing your business model), a poor organisational structure (no one is accountable) or whether it is lack of skills in segmenting the markets incorrectly etc.

Once you have identified that it is (e.g.) because your marketing team is insufficiently skilled in applying market segmentation tools, you know the problem to fix. (And you can stop flogging your sales reps and you can stop handing out sales incentives.)

NOTE: This is part 3 in the series. Visit our blog and find the rest of the series which will be published on consecutive days. 

Alternatively you can download the whitepaper in a single PDF.