Some Sage Advice

A reminder to focus on the problem
before looking for a solution

by Art Spooner

For several years, I’ve had an Albert Einstein quote written on the whiteboard in my office: "If I only had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions." It reminds my co-workers and me not to jump to conclusions by thinking about how to fix a problem before we take the time to understand the problem.

I recently discovered a similar quote by Abraham Lincoln: "If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe."

Thinking about Einstein’s 55:5 ratio and Lincoln’s 45:15 ratio, I wondered how these ratios might map to structured problem-solving procedures. In manufacturing, the two most common problem-solving procedures are define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC) and 8D. Einstein and Lincoln’s quotes suggest that in DMAIC, we must spend the vast majority of our time on the first three steps (define, measure and analyze) and less time on the last steps (improve and control). The quotes also suggest that if we focus intently on the first four steps in 8D (team formation, problem definition, containment and root cause analysis), we would not need to spend so much time on the final steps (corrective action, verification, prevention and congratulations).

There’s urgency when we first hear about a problem—there may be a line shutdown in the factory, a phone call from a frustrated field technician or an email from an angry customer. If it’s a recurring problem, there’s the added reminder of the previous unsuccessful efforts. The person with the problem just wants it to go away as quickly as possible, and the problem-solvers also want to resolve it in as little time as possible because they have other responsibilities that are being interrupted. Who can take the time for structured problem-solving?

Whatever the urgency, effective problem-solvers have the self-discipline to develop a complete description of the problem. They may be tempted to ask, "Have you tried ___?" But then they slow down and ask, "Who first noticed the problem?" and all those other tedious Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? How many? questions. This takes discipline.

Even if the team hasn’t decided whether to follow DMAIC or 8D, the first two steps of the 8D process are helpful early in problem-solving. Effective teams often ask the people reporting the problem to provide photos or videos, describe the failure mode precisely, or provide data from products that are working well and products that are failing. It often helps to make a formal request for the people who experience the problem to join the problem-solving team.

Einstein and Lincoln’s ratios also help focus effective problem-solvers on root cause analysis. Especially in customer-supplier problem-solving, it is easy for one side to assign responsibility to the other before understanding the failure mode in detail. This can set up an unnecessarily adversarial relationship, which makes it even more difficult to understand the problem in full.

Experienced problem-solvers know that, in many cases, it is necessary to "circle back" to earlier steps in the problem-solving process. The problem definition may need additional details, the team may need another member, or understanding the failure mode may give a clue to improve containment. In cases like this, when everyone involved is eager for solutions (when will you be done?), Einstein and Lincoln remind us that we must take the time to complete the first steps of problem-solving. Spending this time at the beginning of the problem-solving process is an investment worth making.

Art Spooner is a senior global supplier quality manager at Life Fitness in Franklin Park, IL. He has a master’s degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. An ASQ senior member, he is an ASQ-certified quality manager and Six Sigma Black Belt.

I believe that the Abraham Lincoln quote was intended to be a metaphor about how people procrastinate on a task. The Einstein quote seems to be more about how the "Define" stage is the most critical in a problem solving process - i.e. spending time researching and understanding the problem will speed up the solution attainment.
--Kevin Brinkman, 11-01-2018

Great article - clear and concise - no heavy lingo. Thanks!
--Heather , 07-19-2017

If I only had an hour to spend on the Internet, I'd spend 55 minutes looking at Dilbert comics. George Washington
--Doug Stringer, 05-04-2015

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