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Introduction to Problem Structuring: ‘I Keep Six Honest Serving Men’

In this video, you hear Rudyard Kipling’s 'I Keep Six Honest Serving Men', which is a very simple tool to critically analyse and structure a problem.
One of the greatest challenges in addressing a problem is trying to figure out where to start with it. In these instances one of the best things you can do before you even start thinking about solutions is to take the time to really understand the problem. An easy way to understand the problem is to start structuring it. There are many ways to structure problems and we’ll cover more of these later, but one of the simplest and most universal tools is Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘I Keep Six Honest Serving Men.’ This poem was written by Kipling in 1902 and it summarises the six questions which constitute a useful formula for getting the complete picture of a subject or problem.
I keep six honest serving men, They taught me all I knew, Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who, I send them over land and sea, I send them east and west, But after they have worked for me, I give them all a rest. I let them rest from nine ‘till five, For I am busy then, As well as breakfast lunch and tea, For they are hungry men. But different folk have different views, I know a person small, She keeps 10 million serving men, Who get no rest at all, She sends them abroad on her own affairs, From the second she opens her eyes, One million ‘Hows’, two million ‘Wheres’ And seven million ‘Whys’!

In this video, you hear a reading of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, I Keep Six Honest Serving Men.

The poem is a very simple tool for starting to think about and structure a problem or to critically analyse a situation by considering the following questions:

What is the problem?

Why is it a problem?

When is it a problem?

How is it problematic?

Where is it a problem?

Who is it a problem for?

By applying this poem to a problem, you might get a greater insight into it, as opportunity can often be gained by asking as many questions around the topic as possible.

Kipling’s ‘person small’ in the poem, referring to a child, is a good reminder to keep being curious about our problems. We all know that children like to ask a lot of questions and have a lot of ideas as a result, so why don’t we keep doing the same in adulthood?

In the next step, you’ll have the chance to apply the questions in the poem I Keep Six Honest Serving Men to a problem of your own.

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