Lesson 7: What Exactly Is Your Problem?

What is your problem?Have you ever been faced with a problem?  Something that just didn’t work the way it should?  Or worse still, something that used to work perfectly but now, for some bizarre and obscure reason, has stopped?

Even worse, have you fixed the problem; repeatedly… and yet it still happens.   How do you fix a problem like that?

We never seem to have time to do a job properly, but we always have time to do it twice  ~ Anon

Jumping to Conclusions

The cause of the issue is that we are a little inclined to jump to conclusions.  Take for example a bumpy ride in a car.  If somebody says that the problem is a flat tyre and you look, and the tyre is flat, then it is also blindingly obvious what the solution is.  Change the tyre.

Where we are not so good is if the cause isn’t clear and the solution isn’t so unmistakable.  At that point we all have our pet theories, we chase down blind alleys and try things multiple times (ever looked in the same pocket for the lost keys?)  We are very haphazard in our approach.

This is human nature, go with your gut instinct and follow your nose.  Half of the time we are right and it works, but the rest of the time it can be a real pain.  That is when you need a more structured approach.  Truth be told, I am not generally one for stopping and thinking, but sometimes there is no alternative.

If asking “why?” several times isn’t enough, try specifying the problem using “is not” analysis

A problem well stated is a problem half solved ~ Charles F. Kettering

Specify the Problem:

When it comes to root cause analysis it helps if you can specify the problem.  Being clear about what the problem is and more importantly what it is not is the key to problem solving.  It sounds a little counter intuitive.  How can knowing what the problem “is not” help fix it?  Let’s talk through a problem to give an example:

Stating the problem and suggesting some causes:

Here is my problem:  “It is dark in the bedroom”.

That sounds like a vague statement, but it is on a par with “my PC isn’t working”, “postal applications aren’t coming through” or “the mixing plant isn’t working”.  It does however have two key pieces of information.  It states what the object is, “the bedroom”, and it says what the defect is “it is dark”.  Sounds obvious I know, but the trick is to be clear.

There are a whole range of reasons why it could be dark in the bedroom: the light bulb has blown, the light switch is faulty, the light hasn’t been switched on, the electricity supply has been cut.  If I put my mind to it I am sure I could come up with 20 potential causes inside a minute.  Instead of chasing down all the possible solutions and wasting a lot of time, start by defining the problem.  Ask yourself the following 5 questions:

1.  What is the problem, and what “is not” the problem?

The first bit is easy; the fact it is dark in the bedroom is the problem.  The second bit is harder, what “is not” the problem?  It is an odd question.  Well the problem is not that the curtains won’t open.  The problem is not that I can’t reach the light switch.  Being clear about the obvious helps rule out possibilities.

2.  Where is the problem and where is not the problem?

The problem is in the bedroom, but is it in all the bedrooms?  Is it just in the back bedroom?  Is it all the lights upstairs, what about the lights next door?  Are they working?  What about the rest of the street?  Where are the lights not not working?   Well the light in the living room is OK.

Knowing where the problem “is not” helps immensely.  I can now rule out the possibility that I forgot to pay the electricity bill or that there is a power cut.  I don’t need to go hunting around my bank statements.  It would be helpful to be more specific still.  Is the problem the ceiling light?  What about the bed side light?

3.  When is the light not working?  When was it “is not” not working?

If the light works perfectly well between 7pm and 10pm but then cuts out, and always cuts out at 10pm then that leads you down one train of thought.  If the light was working fine until 7pm (when your daughter spilt water everywhere) and hasn’t worked since then, you will have another perspective altogether.

4.  How many lights are the problem?  How many lights “is not” the problem?

Please excuse my grammar.  How many lights don’t work?  Is it one light or is it more than one light.  Are three of the lights in the chandelier working and three of them dark?  I won’t ask any more, I imagine you are getting the gist of it.

5.  Has anything changed, is anything special?

The final question: has anything changed, or is there anything special about the object that has the problem?  It might be that you just changed the light bulb or drilled a hole in the wall.  It might be that this particular bedroom is the only one above the garage.

Like Pulling Teeth?

It will feel a bit like pulling teeth getting everybody to sit still for long enough to define the problem like this.  The impulse is always to shoot off and try the next most obvious fix.  But you need to spend the time nailing down the problem, specifying what it is, when it is, where it is and “is not”.

Now you can suggest causes and jump to as many conclusions as you like:

  • It was leaking water
  • It was a power cut
  • It was a dodgy connection
  • It was a lightning strike
  • It was an Act of God.

Once you have your possible causes throw them at the problem specification.  Test them to see if the possible cause meets the outcome.  Then you can rule most of them out without going to the time and trouble of trying them.

f your husband is sure that the light doesn’t work because a mouse has chewed through the wires, ask him how this explains why next doors lights are also dark.  Maybe you have very big mice?

This approach won’t tell you what the solution is, but it will tell you what it “is not”.  It is worth doing this before he starts to pull up the floor boards.


  1. Next time you have an unsolvable problem draw up this grid and fill it in.
  2. Take time to be precise in your specification of the problem.
  3. Test your individual hypotheses against it.
  4. Clearly state why you have eliminated each possible cause just in case you have to go back over the logic
  5. When you have reached your most likely cause remove it and see if it has fixed the problem
  6. If it hasn’t recheck you problem statement and generate more possible causes to test against it

Problem Analysis

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Next week we will discuss business process management and how to specify your processes.

Thank you for reading.



Post Script

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