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  • Steve Gompertz

Problem Definition: The Three Most Common Mistakes

Written by: Steve Gompertz, Partner, COO

During a presentation the other day on steps for effective Root Cause Analysis (RCA), attendees had lots of questions about what was critical to the process. Was it the process participants? The analysis Facilitator? The data? All of these are important, but like many things, the first step is usually the most critical.

In the case of RCA, that first step is correctly identifying the problem to be addressed. Typically, not a lot of effort is put into this step as it seems so obvious. The catch is that it’s not obvious at all.

Mistake 1: Often the problem is stated in terms of what was observed; in other words, the symptoms. Symptoms, or Apparent Causes, are not Root Causes, and taking action on them will not prevent recurrence.

If I think of a runny nose as the problem, blowing my nose would seem a logical action. And while that action produces some degree of relief, it doesn’t stop my nose from continuing to run since the Root Cause (a cold or the flu) hasn’t been addressed.

A more common quality-related version of this mistake might be something like stating that the problem to be addressed is “parts are failing inspection”. Is that really the problem, or is that the symptoms of a problem? If inspection failures are the problem, then the solution is simple; stop performing the inspections and there won’t be any more failures.

Obviously, that’s not the right solution. The problem statement should be focused more on the intent of performing the inspections; maybe something more along the lines of ensuring that during the machining operation the parts’ outer dimension is within tolerances so that the part will fit into an assembly. So, a better problem statement is more along the lines of “parts are not being produced that will consistently meet their intended purpose.” Now we can perform a much more robust RCA. The key being that the Root Cause(s) and the appropriate Corrective Actions lie not at then end of manufacturing during the inspection process but somewhere earlier.

Mistake 2: Another common mistake in defining the problem, is stating the problem as the solution; e.g. – the inspection equipment needs to be replaced. That’s jumping to conclusions at its best, and unnecessarily destructive at its worst. Instead, the problem should be stated to capture impact or undesirable outcome. Delivery dates can’t be met because the equipment needed to produce the order items won’t power up. That’s a problem statement that will focus us on determining actions that will produce results. Might the equipment need to be replaced? Sure, but it might be something much simpler, and cheaper, like the circuit breaker keeps tripping. Confusing a solution with the problem statement can and often leads to missing the best options.

Mistake 3: The third mistake often made in defining the problem, is in not stating it in measurable way so that we’ll be able to determine whether we resolved it effectively. Problem statements essentially identify a gap between desired and actual outcomes. If you can’t quantify each of those states, then how will you know whether the gap was reduced or eliminated? Problem statements need t

o avoid vague wording like fast, better, mostly, usually, etc. The problem needs to identify quantifiable characteristics, or in lieu of that, binary situations (e.g. – pass/fail). Quantifying the problem not only aids in determining Root Cause, it plays a key role in determining the appropriate Corrective Actions to apply.

Whether you prefer a “Ready, Aim, Fire” or “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach, note that “Ready” is always first. Defining the problem correctly is that step and requires an appropriate level of attention and effort to ensure your efforts have the best outcome.

QRx Partners can develop and provide

training to your organization on RCA and many other topics by contacting us at or 833-779-7278.

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