Framing your problem so it can be solved..

By Elisabeth Goodman, 22nd February 2017

I had a very enjoyable day yesterday teaching four young people about Lean and Six Sigma as they explored how to improve one of their processes.  I work on the premise that ‘problems are treasures’: the more you find and deal with, the less fire-fighting you will have to do at time and cost critical times. They found lots of lovely problems to explore, and we got stuck into the 5 Why’s and Fishbone analysis to find the root causes to one of them.

Fishbone analysis – illustration adapted from “The Effective Team’s Operational Excellence Workbook” by Elisabeth Goodman, RiverRhee Publishing, 2015

How each problem is framed can make an enormous difference to what root causes are found, and how many of them.  This was graphically illustrated with when a re-framing of the problem resulted in some root causes that the team could actually do something about, as opposed to the original root cause which would have fairly limited potential.

I already know, from the workshops I’ve attended with the Ideas Centre that it’s worth exploring the nature of a problem before getting down to finding solutions for it.  There are many ways to do this.

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Find the root causes

The Lean and Six Sigma techniques provide one way to do this.  As the story I share about the Jefferson Memorial building illustrates: there’s no point investing in bird scarers when the root cause for high cleaning bills caused by large number of birds, is actually when the street lights are turned on creating a food chain from midges, to spiders to birds.  The solution hinges on the timing of the street lights rather than the bird scarers!

Illustration of the Jefferson Memorial building in “The Effective Team’s Operational Excellence Workbook”, by Elisabeth Goodman, RiverRhee Publishing, 2015

The different headings in Fishbone analysis can also provide useful prompts to explore what other themes might be associated with a problem.  Is it to do with people, the methods or metrics being used, the wider environment, the systems or IT involved, or the materials available?

Get other people’s perspectives

A Lean Sigma principle is that it’s the people doing the work who have the best understanding of the associated problems.  As I found in the Ideas Centre workshops, involving people who are not directly concerned with the work will bring some different and often helpful perspectives on a problem.  They will ask the ‘dumb’ questions that those doing the work might not be aware of, or may not have the courage to ask.  That could help re-frame the problem, as well potentially providing some very different solutions.

A January-February 2017 Harvard Business Review article: “Are you solving the right problems” by  Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, p.76, refers to people who can provide these other perspectives as ‘boundary spanners’.

Think about the problem differently

One of my previous blogs about the value of learning to draw references a number of ways that we can think about or look at a problem differently, and the HBR article referenced above has a nice range of ideas too.

I like the suggestion that we could think about what could be happening, as opposed to what the problem is.  This has hints of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) – what vision would we like to move towards?  Appreciative Inquiry – what situations can we think of where things have worked the way we would like them to?  Clean Language / Questions – what would we like to have happen?  We can gain insights from these positive mindsets and experiences that could help us reframe and resolve the problem.



It’s worth spending time experimenting with how you frame your problem.  What solution will one definition of the problem give you?  Will a different definition potentially lead you in a different direction?

The various techniques described above could help you.  Treating each problem as a treasure to be welcomed, rather than another headache to get anxious about could be an interesting mind-set to experiment with too!

As one of yesterday’s delegates said in his feedback, they took away some good learnings from the course: “Wonderful training course, learnt plenty, look forward to using this knowledge.”  Hopefully one of those learnings will be to think carefully about how they frame their problems.  Will you?

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We use training, facilitation, coaching, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  

RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals).

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner.  

She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she leads on Membership, Communications and Events for the Enabling Change SIG committee.


2 thoughts on “Framing your problem so it can be solved..”

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