Re-Defining the Problem

Today, I saw a definition of Problem that I disliked VERY MUCH. Granted, this was in a Root Cause Analysis manual, so I expected much complexity. Still, the definition annoyed me. (This might be misquoted slightly, but it captures the gist.)

A current behaviour or course of action (by people or equipment) that is producing unexpected, inappropriate, or undesirable results.

That's not a Problem, that's a Cause. Remove some unnecessary words and this becomes clear.

... behaviour or ... action ... producing ... results.

The same document states many times that a Problem Statement must never include a Cause. Whoops!

That definition has other issues. For example, it is both over-specified and under-specified. It's also very wordy.

  1. "Current" means you can only consider something happening now. What about the past or the future?
  2. "Behaviour or course of action" implies active causation. Passive causation is a thing, e.g. a latent condition that is a vulnerability.
  3. "By people or equipment" ignores many important issues. What about job aids, procedures, or software?
  4. "Is producing" means that the undesirable thing has happened or is happening now. What if you want to be proactive and address a risk or near miss?
  5. "Unexpected, inappropriate, or undesired results" happen all the time. They're sometimes acceptable.

Here's a MUCH better definition.

A preventable event or condition with unacceptable consequences.

This avoids all the problems of the other definition. (Haha.)

  1. It doesn't specify a time-frame (e.g., "current") because it doesn't need to.
  2. "Preventable" means you have agency. If you're considering something that's truly unpreventable, then you're considering the wrong thing. Look instead at the preventable vulnerability.
  3. "Event or condition" allows for both active and passive causation. Precursors, latent conditions, and organizational weaknesses are all included.
  4. "With" is specific enough to identify a relationship. It's also generic enough to include both actual and potential occurrences.
  5. "Unacceptable consequences" draws a clear line: you only have a problem if you can't accept the consequences. Otherwise, what you have is an annoyance, not a problem.

This definition is also plain, short, and simple. Does that make it inferior? Does its uncomplicated nature somehow erode its quality?

I don't think so. It says exactly what it needs to... no more, no less. It is clear, it is precise, and every word tells.

by Bill Wilson
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Last updated: August 27, 2020 at 1:04 am

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