The real problem? Identifying the problem

by Domenico Di Monte, FEDERTEC vice president

This may sound like a paradox but it is not. I would like to use this space to stimulate reflection on aspects directly related to the actions to be implemented to promote continuous improvement in the company, but not only. Unfortunately, I often realise that in complex application contexts, the strategy devised to “solve” a problem or achieve an objective starts from a basic error concerning the incorrect identification and definition of the problem or objective itself. There is always talk of “problem solving”, and new recruits are required to have “great problem-solving skills”, but I am increasingly convinced that the rarest and most useful skill is linked to a process upstream of problem solving: the exact identification of the problem itself or “problem finding”.  The difficulty of this phase is often linked to incomplete information and the increasingly limited time available, which implies the impossibility of assessing all the variables and undoubtedly to the “selective” attention that normally characterises an analytical approach.

There are many anecdotes, more or less verified, about finding brilliant solutions to wrong problems. At the time of the first space travels, the engineers of the most renowned space agencies were looking for the best way to use ballpoint pens to write in space (the absence of gravity made it difficult for the ink to flow out, thus excluding weight and limiting the flow to capillarity only). While looking for the best mechanical solution, the classic “inexperienced caretaker” asked why pencils were not used instead of ballpoint pens: the engineers were solving the wrong problem, since the need was not “to make ink flow in the absence of gravity” but “to write”. I don’t know how much truth there is in this anecdote, but I would focus on the concept that in many cases the rush to find quick solutions takes us away from the actual focus of the problem.

Let us take a current issue as an example. We are studying the best way to calculate and distribute the citizenship income (a measure with a “finite capacity” and therefore necessarily destined to be “exhausted” regardless of the amount) instead of creating the conditions for everyone to be able to access the world of work by actually generating their own income (this consideration obviously only applies to those who are able to work).

The same concept applies, for example, to industry support measures identified in incentives to end-consumer spending (e.g. for the purchase of cars or other goods). Also in this case, instead of a “structural” benefit, we are talking about “immediate” benefits. In fact, the problem they solve is “creating turnover” by distorting the market in the short term, while the real solution should be to implement measures that allow industry to develop in a structured and above all continuous manner. (An example of a measure in this direction is the defiscalisation of investments in production machinery, because it combines the immediate benefit with that of technological renewal and the consequent increase in production efficiency and cost reduction).

This model can be applied in the business environment too. Just think of the optimisation of processes aimed at reducing lead times: often the focus is on increasing production performance without correctly identifying the real ‘bottleneck’, perhaps represented by aspects more related to logistics, infrastructure or other. For example, why bother to design the most powerful engine possible for your car only to realise that it cannot reach even a third of the speed because one of the wheels is flat?

There are many methodologies for a correct approach to ‘problem finding’ and subsequent ‘problem solving’, from the application of the theory of constraints, to the TRIZ methodology, from the S.M.A.R.T. method to that called APS and many others characterised by the most imaginative acronyms.  The key element is being aware of the importance of this phase and to tackle it with due attention. My personal perception is that the industrial world in this post-pandemic period is called upon to take concrete action to restart in the most effective way as possible, by resolving pending issues and problems, provided that we really manage to identify the problems correctly.