“Problems are good”… Why exactly?

“Problems are good”. This mantra from Lean business improvement rings true for many. Problems lead us to improvements if we take the time to sit with them for a while and discover their true source.

In Lean, problem-solving methodologies are used to focus on one problem at a time. Problems are seen as opportunities to learn. What’s the impact of not solving the problem? What is the ease of implementing the solution – is there a quick win?

Let’s face it, none of us have time to waste. With that in mind it’s best to follow a scientific method. Enter PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Adjust NOT! PDQ (not plan, do, quit).


First things first – what exactly is going on? You need to “grasp the situation”. It may help to write it out, brainstorm with someone else, get creative.
Check out actual vs standard – is what you expect to happen actually happening? Or are shortcuts being taken? And don’t forget actual vs ideal – how much more effort would it take to rise to the next level?

If you’re still struggling a tool like the 5 Why’s may help to discover the root cause of the problem.

5 Why’s

The 5 why’s is an easy to use, effective tool for uncovering the root of a problem. It can be used in troubleshooting, problem-solving and quality improvement initiatives. Simply start with a problem and ask “why” it is occurring. Make sure that your answer is grounded in fact, then ask “why” again. Continue the process until you reach the root cause of the problem, and you can identify a counter-measure that prevents it recurring.

This questioning process is best suited to simple to moderately difficult problems. Complex problems may benefit from a more detailed approach (although using 5 Whys will still give you useful insights).

If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to it’s own answer. Asking questions is the ABC of diagnosis. Only the inquiring mind solves problems – Edward Hodnett

BUT! What if you’ve got more than one problem?


This may be a no-brainer and your problems may sort themselves easily into a logical priority list. If that’s not the case – this Priority Matrix tool may help you sort the men from the boys.

To use it – plot an activity’s urgency (time sensitivity) and how critical it is (what will you gain by completing the activity. Simple!


You can’t manage what you don’t measure so don’t forget to determine how you will measure your success. Attach a KPI (key performance indicator) to this issue – be it cost or time-saving, conversions, revenue generation etc.

Importantly here, think about the effort vs reward you will achieve in addressing this problem. Consider that the solution may be to stop doing whatever is creating the problem altogether. This may mean streamlining and simplifying your services, dropping certain products, changing your clientele or outsourcing certain processes.


Ok you’ve decided on the root cause of your problem and the appropriate counter-measure or solution. You’ve also decided it’s worth the time and effort involved to put your solution into action. So, go on – put your plan into action – it may be a new process, new software, outsourcing, automation, you name it. Then, measure your result, you may need a period of time to get a true (statistical) result.


How did your improvement go? Use your KPI here to answer the question “Did you achieve a measurable and significant difference?”


Answer – Yes? Great! Formalize your change – write it into your processes, add it to your daily routine whatever it takes to make the change stick. We are creatures of habit and until a new way of doing feels habitual we may drift back to old bad habits.

No? Ok. Back to the drawing board but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! – there may only be adjustment, or minimal change needed to shift your result to a more positive one.

The beauty of PDCA is that you can continually move through its cycle, constantly seeking improvements and more benefits.

The aim is to SEE (the problem, our interpretation of the world), DO (determined by what we see) then GET (results based on action taken).


5 Whys

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