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.
- "Current" means you can only consider something happening now. What about the past or the future?
- "Behaviour or course of action" implies active causation. Passive causation is a thing, e.g. a latent condition that is a vulnerability.
- "By people or equipment" ignores many important issues. What about job aids, procedures, or software?
- "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?
- "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.)
- It doesn't specify a time-frame (e.g., "current") because it doesn't need to.
- "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.
- "Event or condition" allows for both active and passive causation. Precursors, latent conditions, and organizational weaknesses are all included.
- "With" is specific enough to identify a relationship. It's also generic enough to include both actual and potential occurrences.
- "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