The problem with solutions

May 26, 02016 · Problem identification Problem solving A3

Everybody has problems.

"Once you get past a certain threshold, everyone's problems are the same: fortifying your island and hiding the heat signature from your fusion reactor."
—Dr. Impossible

Everybody has problems, and problems have solutions.

The problem with solutions is that people can't stop thinking of 'em.

There are plenty of explanations for this. Examples:

Here's the deal. If you want to make things better,2 you can do it by working on problems. But don't solve problems—at least not right away.

Be hungry for problems

"People who can solve problems do lead better lives. But people who can ignore problems, when they choose to, live the best lives."
—Jerry Weinberg, The Secrets of Consulting

You're always going to have problems. One of the great Just So Stories is that "no problems is a problem"—Mark Graban shares a version here. Not being aware of any problems doesn't mean that they're not there. It only means that you're missing out on the opportunities that properly identified and communicated-about problems can represent.

So collect problems. Not in a suggestion box (suggestion boxes are problems unto themselves), but in a way that is respectful of people. Have a place where people can put problems when they arise, or become visible. Build a system around this place.

An organization's inventory of shit that isn't working right is one of the most valuable things it has. Where is yours? Can you show it to me? How often do you look at it? How much time do your leaders spend looking at it?3

Be systematic

The day-to-day activity of continuous improvement is problem-solving in order to remove waste. And the basic unit of continuous improvement is something called A3, or the 8 step problem-solving method.

I plan to write more about A3 in this space. A bunch more. Facilitating this thinking—and getting people the tools to do it with my help the first time, and without my help the next many, many times—is something I do often. And I'd like for you to have the tools and information you need to do it yourself.4

The key point for today is this: steps 1 through 4 are all about digging into the problem; only in step 5 do folks start looking for solutions. And by step 8 they've tried some stuff out, seen what works and what doesn't, and responded in kind. If I'm involved, my job is to drag people back from thinking about solutions and to share some ways of talking about problems in terms of customer value and respect for people.

This system is simple. But it can get hairy. There's all this work to do with the problem before you begin identifying countermeasures and hashing out how to validate them as quickly and painlessly as possible. A3 is a chance to slow down and think things through.5

(But baby) be prepared to be surprised

Why do this? If you can see the solution as soon as you start thinking about the problem, what's the point? Aren't we just wasting time? Not in my book. Using an A3 or something like it will ensure that y'all:

In service work and knowledge work, people have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. But customers don't want forests. They don't want trees. They want… whatever you are making out of wood, I hope, as I put this metaphor quietly to rest.

I see people working through A3s and generating surprises all the time. People walk in wanting to fix the people they work with and end up fixing themselves. Or they walk in wanting to fix their customers and end up fixing the lousy, outdated misinformation they share with customers.

Yesterday it was people walking in wanting to fix software and ending up planning to try out better signage and visual communication.

My father-in-law Bruce once said "whatever you do is right." Whatever you do is right. Just be confident in what you're doing, and why. It's no surprise that these things are hard to talk about. When the job is to help people or to create information for them, the work is mostly invisible. Problems in the work are even more invisible. So think things through. Do the work. Show the work. Put it on a page (made of tree or bits, I don't care) and communicate about it. This won't make your problems go away, but it will make your problems useful.


  1. How's that for pop psychology?

  2. Which is to say—if you want to increase customer value through continuous improvement, with respect for people (more here).

  3. Oh, wait. Oh gosh. You're saying that you don't have an inventory of shit that isn't working right? Then what do folks do when they see a problem? Do they think . o O (well, that's just how things work here) or . o O (this workaround blows) or . o O (I hate that we have to deal with this problem every single time)? Well, they might. Or they might just get stressed out and jittery and irritated—that's that old dopey reptile in our brains trying to wake up our conscious selves so we will deal with this shit already. Seems like a pretty reliable way to encode active disrespect for people in the work that happens every day.

  4. In the meantime, you can take a look at LEI's confusing tangle of material about A3. I don't have a single, good resource for A3, so for the moment: I give you the confusing tangle. There is a lot of good stuff in there, you just gotta dig.

  5. But not too much—we're talking hours, not days, even for heady problems.

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