!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: What's the problem?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What's the problem?

As a follow-on to an earlier post, I'd like to home in on the first step in any effective problem-solving process — defining the problem.

The US Department of Energy Guidebook to Decision-Making Methods (pdf) offers a useful worksheet for clarifying the specifics of the problem you are dealing with. The worksheet has seven sections (somewhat adapted here):
  1. Summary statement of the problem (= the unacceptable or undesirable condition).

  2. Define the initial state.

      • What are the symptoms?

      • What are notable features
         of the problem situation?

      • What are potential causes
         of the problem?

      • What assumptions are
         appropriate for the analysis?

  3. What will happen if the problem is not solved? Why fix it?

  4. What historical causes or barriers may be important considerations in defining and evaluating alternative possible solutions?

  5. What is the desired state? Describe the expected characteristics of the improved situation after the problem is properly solved.

  6. Who is affected by the problem, i.e., who are the stakeholders? What other significant impacts does the problem have?

  7. What is included in the system boundary of the problem, i.e, what is the scope of the problem in "big picture" terms?
Once you have completed the worksheet, you should have captured the details you need in order to express the problem in a single, clear sentence that describes both the initial state and the desired state. That sentence becomes the final version of your entry in the first section of the worksheet.