What’s the problem?

This past year has been so overwhelming for me with respect to all types of work that I do, that I hadn’t the time to write even a single article. But it has gone, I have freed a bit of time, finished the upgrade of the website and would now like to renew my writing of content, to bring you value. It won’t be weekly, as it was in the beginning, but I shall set a goal for myself to write a full article for you on a monthly basis. Then we’ll see how it goes.

A million ideas have accumulated, which I would like to share with you, but I must choose one subject. Well, I choose to focus on the first stage of Problem-solving methodology: Problem Definition.

For opening, I shall use a little amusing story we used to tell as a joke, when I was a teenager.

A research scientist is conducting an experiment on flies.

He takes a fly and examines it from all directions: its back and its stomach, its head and its eyes. He carefully records in detail everything he has observed in his experiment journal, makes a drawing of the fly and then tears off its wings.

He shouts at the fly: “Jump, fly!”, and claps his hands over it.

The wingless thing cannot fly away, but it jumps in terror.

The scientist records in his journal: “A fly with no wings jumps in fear”. He then removes the fly’s middle pair of legs, claps his hands over it again and shouts: “Jump, fly!”

 And, again, the fly jumps.

The scientist records in his journal: “A fly with 4 legs jumps in fear”. He removes another pair of legs, claps his hands and shouts: “Jump, fly!”

The fly gives a sideways start with the last pair of legs it still has.

The scientist records the observation in his journal, removes the last pair of the fly’s legs, claps his hands and shouts: “Jump, fly!”

Nothing happens.

He brings his hands really close to the fly, claps, makes sharp motions and shouts, again: “Jump, fly!”


“Jump, fly!”


The scientist writes in his journal: “A fly with no legs cannot hear”.

I can predict, on a good basis, that the results of this experiment will be repeated again and again with 100% certainty. But what has made the story so funny for kids was the very obvious fact, that there was no correlation between the research subject, the experiment, the observations and the conclusion.

Illustration: experiment

Let’s leave the first two for another time, and today let’s focus on the correlation between the experiment and the conclusion. It must obvious to you, that the reason the fly wouldn’t jump is not because it cannot hear, not because it isn’t terrified, but due to lack of implements allowing jumping – legs.

But is this funny story, this joke, really a just a joke? Do we not perform the same mistakes in our daily life? At work? At home?

The ability to make a right conclusion based on observation or information is an essential life skill. It is a basic instrument in the Quality Assurance person’s work, whether in industry or in other fields – various services, military etc. Without it we cannot improve a thing. We cannot derive any significant practical conclusion from any experiment we conduct, even if we repeat it thousands of times. We can never understand the processes, operating in any organization. We would be working, as our people say, “full gas in neutral”.

One of our main jobs is to bring improvement, or solve process problems. This means we must routinely analyze “problems”. If we want to be effective in our jobs, we must acquire the skills required for analysis and solution of problems, in other words – problem-solving methodology. Or, simply speaking, solving problems by means of a system.

The very first stage of the methodic solving of problems is Defining the Problem.

And no, this does not mean stating what it is that bothers us. What bothers us is but the symptom of the problem, just like, in healthcare, when we turn to the doctor with a headache, we expect him to solve the problem. A truly good doctor knows that the headache is not the problem. It is only a symptom, announcing the problem. There are multiple health conditions, in which one of the symptoms is a headache. A truly good doctor would like to understand, which condition is in place; which problem does the headache symptom alert us in this case.

A doctor who is not aware of this, will just prescribe an Advil. Most people would take the Advil and go home without the headache. But has the doctor solved the problem? Has he treated the problem – or the symptom?

Some would say: What difference does it make? There is no headache now, is there?

Well, no, there isn’t. But… how about tomorrow? When the Advil’s influence, making you not feel the ache, ends? What about the problem, of which the headache was the symptom?

First, I would expect another symptom to show up. Why? Because with no treatment, no solution, the problem will continue to exist and even grow. You may think the headache has passed, but now weariness appears in its place. But no, there is high chance that the weariness and the headache are symptoms of the same untreated problem. The symptom is nature’s way to alert us to the problem, before everything blows up. Before it grows to such proportions, that you may find it difficult to contain.

And what about industry or service?

There really is no difference. A symptom is but a symptom, and its role is the same: alerting us to the existence of a problem, before everything blows up. It’s a call for our attention.

But if what is bothering us is not the problem, how shall we know what the problem is?

That is precisely the question on which the stage of Problem Definition of the problem-solving methodology focuses.

We must examine the possibilities, the conditions in which one of the symptoms is that which is now bothering us, and, perhaps, we may identify more than one symptom, which will, undoubtedly, help us get to the root cause.

Albert Einstein said about Problem Definition in science: “The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.”

Well, what does this Problem Definition stage contain?

Problem Detection

Illustration: a problem

Everything begins with some sort of complaint. A symptom appears, we stop and begin to think of solutions. At that time, naturally, so as not to stop everything, we must first address and take decisions about the immediate future, the here and now. Do we continue work and then filter? Do we stop and switch to something else, while the problem is being solved? The decision is made based on cost-effectiveness.

Then, a team is gathered, consisting of representatives of all departments which have some effect on the problem or are in some way affected by the problem, as well as all departments which are at their service, led by Quality Assurance. The problem is presented, in terms of its symptoms. What the complaint is.

Data (fact) collection

Now, to understand the problem, choose the right condition to which the symptoms point, we must collect some data.

  • How do workers/departments/production lines/products/and so on experience the problem?
  • What is the scope of the problem – 100% of the products? 10% of the products?
  • What is the severity of the problem – does it required stopping the process, contacting the customer, special concessions, scrapping material, repairs?
  • Has the problem occurred before? How many times? When?
  • Understanding how the whole process works – laying the process out by single operations
  • At which precise point in the process does the problem manifest itself?
  • What has already been tried in the past to treat to symptoms or solve the problem? What were the results?
  • What are the routine data, when no symptoms are present, as opposed to the data with the symptoms?

Data Analysis

Now we must analyze the data collected, in order to understand that there is, indeed, a significant deviation from the routine state.

I can hear someone protest: Significant? What do you mean, significant? Any deviation is a deviation!

That’s right.

But not any deviation will, to my deepest regret, get the same amount of investment in terms of problem solution, due to resource limitations: time, people, machines, materials – all these may be quantified in money. We do not apply Quality Assurance methods whatever the cost.

All of you know only too well, the Quality Assurance people must work, according to Pareto. We must put our effort in the place, which causes the most problems. How should you define what “most problems” is? Well, that is exactly why we collected the facts about the severity of the problem and its scope. They allow us to establish whether we would invest our resources in the solution, and if so – how much.

Here is where we estimate the benefit of the solution to the problem and the risk of not addressing it.

So, we analyze the data and discover a significant deviation from the routine state, which requires a solution.

From data collected we know when and where in the problem occurs in the process, and who is affected by it. And now we know the gap between the routine state and the deviation. From the process layout we have learned exactly how the process works. So now we may identify the mechanisms which are or may be carrying the defect, allowing the problem to occur, manifesting the symptoms and reflected in the data we have seen.

Formulating Problem Definition

Problem definition will include the defective mechanisms we received at the conclusion of the data analysis stage.

It is now clear which mechanisms are causing the deviation, and this allows us to focus our attention on these mechanisms in the following stages of the problem-solving methodology, to find the root cause and effectively solve the problem.

Illustration: problem

“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved”, said Charles Kettering, an American inventor from the beginning of the twentieth century. He knew what he was talking about.

The lack of a proper problem definition results in ineffective solution. Just like the headache, we shall forever focus on getting rid of symptoms, and not correcting the mechanisms at fault.

We mustn’t confuse Problem Definition with Root Cause Analysis. These are two separate stages. However, because we discover the faulty mechanisms during the Problem Definition stage, we may now focus on these mechanisms and the processes taking place within them, their mode of operation, their parts, and so on, in order to discover the root causes for the problem. This would save us the search through all the other possibilities, not connected with these specific mechanisms, which may also manifest in similar symptoms.

So, those of you who wish to be effective in problem solution, not to be solving the same problem twenty times, should acquire this essential skill of problem-solving methodology called Problem Definition.

By the way, effective work will yield various benefits for you and enable you to faster meet the goal of Quality Assurance with a smile:

  • First, the reappearance of the same problem time and time again causes frustration. Many Quality Assurance people who are not skilled in methodical work place the responsibility on others, and then their frustration grows even more: “Why can’t they do the job correctly? We have dealt with this problem several times already!” Frustration at others causes negative feelings about your workplace.
  • If you don’t have to solve the same problem again and again, you save yourself another type of frustration, one about yourselves and your ability to assess the problem correctly. Many of those who do take the responsibility tend to take it all very personally, and blame themselves for anything not going according to plan. In this case, effective solution will allow you the satisfaction of a job well done, and will save you the frustration of repeated mistakes.
  • Working with consistent results will cause the manufacturing workers, the immediate beneficiaries of your labors, to look at you with respect and appreciation. This adds to the satisfaction from your workplace and job. In addition, that respect and appreciation will strengthen the trust and improve cooperation with the workers in future.
  • Effective problem solving will clearly show favorably in resource costs, which are greatly squandered by repeating efforts to solve the same problem again and again. This will cause satisfaction and appreciation for your work among the higher and intermediate management.

So, as you may see, effective work is beneficent from whichever angle you look at it, and makes the work itself much smoother and positive, even where there is no apparent connection to the problem.

And when that is the case, will you have another cause to get up in the morning with a smile?

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Thank you.



Quality Assurance Engineer ICQE since 1996, Aerospace Engineer B.Sc., Technion graduate. Lecturer in Quality Assurance Engineering for ICQE qualification and in QA since 1996; first at the Kinneret Academic Colledge, the external studies department, then also at other colledge up North (Krayot, Shelomi). Since 2008 - self employed at Maof Dvora: consulting, holding seminars and lectures at plants in the North of Israel. Involved in a wide range of activities and work: education, website design, art, coaching, Judaism and more.

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