Posted by: JC Gatlin | October 25, 2009

I know I have a problem… I just don’t know what it is


Sometimes problems stick out like sore thumbs, and problem statements practically write themselves. But more often than not, the initial problem has so many layers and complications that it’s really hard to define. So what’s the problem?

A recent PDCA group was stuck asking this same question. There were five Construction Professionals in the group, and all five of them had issues with the same Building Partner. One Construction Professional said the problem was that the Building Partner couldn’t complete the work on schedule, while another said that the Building Partner was charging too much over the competition. Because each had a unique perspective on the problem, no one could agree on exactly what that problem was. So the PDCA just spun around in circles without ever defining an actual problem.

A lot of PDCA groups hit this early road block. It’s common when a process is creating multiple types of waste or a breakdown in the system affects several positions. The more complex the problem, the harder it is to define. In the situation with the five Construction Professionals, the only thing they could agree on was the Building Partner was making life difficult in each community.

The group had to hit the pause button. To get the PDCA moving forward again, the group leader initiated a brainstorming exercise that got all the problem ideas together then sorted out the causes from the actual problems.

Step 1:

Slide1The first step was brainstorming. (Read more about brainstorming by clicking here.) Each member of the group got an opportunity to describe the problem as he or she saw it, and the group leader wrote each description on a dry erase board. These problem description were very simple, 12 words or less. If a problem description got too complicated, he broke it into two shorter ideas. Each member of the group took turns until everyone had said “pass – I’m out of ideas.”

Step 2:

Slide2Once no one in the group had another idea to add to the board, the group leader read each idea. Then they evaluated and discussed each idea to determine if it was actually a problem, or if it was causing a problem. If the idea was a problem, he wrote “P” beside it. If it was causing a problem, he wrote “C” beside it. Ultimately, they had many more “C’s” than “P’s.” (Those “C” ideas were later used in the 5-Why Analysis.)

 Step 3:

Slide3Finally, the group re-evaluated each “P” idea. The goal was to have only one “P” standing. But since they started off with “Houses are over budget” and “Building Partner is more expensive than competition” as both “P’s”, the group leader asked if those ideas related to one another. When connecting the two thoughts, they found “Houses are over budget” because “Building Partner is more expensive than competition.” They then changed “Building Partner is more expensive” to a “C – Cause.”

Once “Houses are over budget” was defined as THE Problem, the group could move on to writing the problem statement. From what I hear, the group is now debating the Point of Cause, but that’s another story.

© October 2009 Homebuilding Partners, Inc. twitter-logo



  1. So true. The struggle to define problems is still here some 5 years into the PDCA education. From one perspective, not an all together bad problem to have though. As we continue to eliminate waste we uncover more complexe and challenging problems. Just takes some time and creative thought to narrow the focus and continue with the process.

  2. Excellent article, JC, and profound awareness, John Weston. Problem solving and specific catalyst discovery takes time and focus. Congrats on your continued efforts. The more you work towards excellence the more “opportunities” you will uncover.

  3. I have come across PDCA’s where i thought the problem was obvious. Then i actually start the process and find that i have not uncovered the problem at all. JC, this is a great exercise.

  4. […] problem-solving process follows the steps laid-out on the PDCA-B6. The B6 format includes a formal problem statement and goal statement, data collection (which graphically illustrates the problem then breaks it down […]

  5. JC,
    excellent problem solving method used on the scenario before the team get into PDCA action.
    Brainstorming can be use to stop the noise or create valuable noise (inputs).

    I’m doing some reading to write on what makes PDCA failed, do let me know if you have any tips on the constraint in implementing PDCA.

    Cheers JC, this is an excellent post.

    • Thank you for reading!

      In our company, our biggest constraint has been managing the PDCA WIP (Work In Process). We tend to start working on a new problem before we fully implement the counter measures of the previous problem. We’ve also found that standardization is a lot tougher than it looks. We’ll implement a new process, everyone will agree that it’s the right thing to do, but then 6 months later we’ll be back to the old way. But we are better than we were last year, and much better than we were 4 years ago…

      One tip that I could provide is to prioritize your problem list. Work on a couple of “A” problems this week, then your “B” problems. “C” problems are not critical and can wait until you have more time to address. Hope this helps.


  6. Thanks for the reply JC,
    I do have similar problem where improvement are just being done as rush job. We created a register to track the effectiveness of improvement by testing the process every interval for 6 months.

    Once the team go around many time with same issues, they just stop doing rush job and focused on working for real improvement.

    Its kind of cultural issues that people like us has to deal with everyday.

    • How many people do you have working in your company? The 6 month test is a very good idea, but I know what you mean about the “rush job.” We’ve been Lean focused for almost 5 years and we still see rush jobs and mountain jumping. It’s just part of human nature.

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