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Senior Correspondent

During a job interview recently things took a surprising turn for my niece Stephanie. One of the questions posed was meant to provide insight into how she approaches problem solving and her reply was, "a problem well-defined is a problem half-solved." The interviewer was so impressed by this philosophy that she noted it down, for use when training her staff. 

While Stephanie saw that this boded well for her chances of being hired, she was also quite surprised. What was common sense to Stephanie was apparently not commonly practiced in that office. I wondered why.

I have been teaching clients the basics of problem solving for many years, focusing first on defining the problem based on facts and specifics. I have observed that most problems do not show up well-defined. They usually present themselves as symptoms of some sort, and trying to solve a symptom or set of symptoms can send us off in the wrong direction, consuming time and other precious resources. Treating problems on this level might offer relief, but if you don’t take a holistic approach, a solution in one area might create unintended problems in another.

Effectively solving a problem means that we dig down to its root cause. Because there is no shortage of problems needing to be solved, I think it is very useful to learn and practice the skill of defining problems.  

A well-defined problem specifies the defect or deficiency, clearly describing what is and is not occurring. The more precise the description, the better poised we are to address it. It also saves time and money when we have to request help from another person. An example of a well-defined problem might be as simple as, "…furnace fan blows continuously, even when heat is off."

This approach seems to be a lost art, probably because it takes time and requires a certain amount of discipline. Yet many businesses and industries still find  this methodology worth the effort as they eliminate costly issues that influence quality, safety or productivity. It helps them remain competitive.

Taking a little time up front can really pay off in the long run.

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