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What is the problem?

Nowadays, problem-solving has become a hot topic in the business world. And the world is only getting more complex than ever before, and we have to learn how to be friends with problems. Therefore, your capability at your job will be highly related to solving problems.

In my previous blogs, I primarily mentioned applying creative thinking to problem-solving. But I suddenly realise that businesses often find the wrong problem to focus on. As a result, they waste their time and resources without making any progress. Sometimes, we see a clue, and we believe this specific clue is the most critical problem. So without searching for more information, we jump to the conclusion. It’s only a matter of time for us to realise that we are not focusing on the problem, but the distraction instead.

In this article, I will demonstrate a handy approach for you to identify critical problems more accurately. This approach combines a vertical scan and a horizontal scan of the potential issues in the business. The vertical scan aims to find the root cause of a symptom, while the horizontal scan aims to search all symptoms that exist in the business. It is noticeable that all symptoms involved in these scans should be facts, not possibilities or assumptions.

A straightforward example of vertical scan is the Toyota Five Whys. Asking multiple whys based on one symptom will help businesses uncover a root cause hidden from the surface. For example, a company discovers its customer satisfaction level was low. By applying the Five Whys, we can find out that the outdated customer data system is the root cause of the issue (Exhibit 1). Nevertheless, the problems can be the tip of an iceberg. 90% of it are hiding under the surface. It is unrealistic to state that one cause is 100% responsible for a problem in the business. Therefore, we need a horizontal scan to kick in during the problem-searching process.

Exhibit 1. Example of Toyota Five Whys

When we use the metaphor that vertical scan is the microscope to analyse a symptom, the horizontal scan is a panoramic camera that searches for all symptoms in the business. A typical example of a horizontal scan is brainstorming, which gathers information and ideas on a large scale. I have participated in many workshops that had brainstorming activities. The tricky part is not about not generating enough ideas but about how to deal with the raw data afterwards.

Here, I want to introduce affinity grouping. The key for this technique is to group the ideas under different themes, so the ideas from the brainstorming activity can be categorized into chunks based on their similarities. Then, we can have a clearer presentation of which parts of the business have gone wrong. This technique is widely used in the user experience design process, but I also find it handy to locate the right problems.

Vertical scan and horizontal scan

In combination, the vertical and horizontal scan give businesses a bigger picture of the most critical problems. But, most importantly, it is also a process of information gathering, communication and corporate learning, with which companies can foster a sustainable operating model.

Creative thinking can help solving problems, but we have to be highly rational and analytical when it comes to finding the problems.


Book to read: "The Pyramid Principle" ------- Barbara Minto

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