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What's the real problem?

In the last step we listened to Shona and identified the problems she is facing in her job.

Some of the problems you heard about will have been relatively trivial, like missing door hooks. Solving these problems might make a few people happier, but would not necessarily be a good use of the centre’s limited resources.

image - montage of Shona at work

Some problems such as the patch of damp in the office, for example might be symptoms of bigger problems, like a leaking roof. Fixing the damp patch would be a temporary solution, as the roof will continue to leak. Finding and fixing that underlying problem means you also fix the cause of the smaller symptomatic problems.

To understand which problems are trivial, symptoms or fundamental problems, you need to find out more information and analyse the situation. You can do this by asking active questions and using your critical thinking skills.

Simple questions will uncover descriptive information:

What is the problem? There’s damp.

Who is affected? The staff in the office.

When does it happen? All the time, but it’s worse when it rains.

Where is it happening? In the wall, starting from the ceiling.

Asking additional analytic questions like Why? and How? can help break down the problems into smaller parts and discover the relationships between them.

Why does the damp spread from the ceiling? The damp is coming from the roof.

Why is it worse when it rains? There’s more water around.

How does rain make the problem worse? Rainwater is coming in through the roof…

In our case, we were able to talk to Shona, but sometimes you’ll need to investigate a problem indirectly. Research and asking questions about the information you uncover can also help you understand the problem. For example, are other people in similar situations encountering the same issues? What are they doing about it? Would that work for us?

Five Whys?

Questions can also help us drill down to the root causes of a problem. A technique called Five Whys? developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda of Toyota Industries, is a useful interrogative technique to explore cause and effect.

image - The 5 Whys

It’s exactly what it sounds like - asking what a problem is, and then asking ‘why is that happening?’ five times to get to the bottom of the problem. For example:

What’s the problem? There’s a leaking ceiling in the back of the arts centre’s offices.

Why is the ceiling leaking? The flat roof is in a bad state of repair and water is getting in to the joins in the felt.

Why is the roof in a bad state of repair? Because it hasn’t been regularly maintained, and the felt needs replacing.

Why hasn’t it been regularly maintained? Because there isn’t a person available to do the regular maintenance any more.

Why isn’t there a person regularly available? Because the centre could not afford to pay the person who did regular maintenance.

Why can the centre not afford to pay for the repair person? Because the funding to the centre was cut and there’s not enough money to pay for the repair person.

So a lack of money is the root cause of our damp problem. Tackling the problem fully would involve finding solutions for each stage of the problem, not just the root cause - fixing the damp ceiling, repairing the roof felt, maintaining the roof regularly, getting a maintenance person, finding the money to pay for them, and securing more funding.

Next you’ll be moving on to defining the problem and communicating it to others effectively by constructing a problem statement.

Now it’s your turn:

Can you think of how the 5 Whys approach might help you? Let your fellow learners know in the Comments section below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Decision Making: How to Choose the Right Problem to Solve

University of Leeds