Solve the Right Problem

Problems are like icebergs — what you see is only a tiny part of the whole.

The visible part of the iceberg didn’t sink the Titanic. It’s what was hidden under the sea that put a 220-245 foot gash in the nearly ¾-inch thick steel plate hull of the ship. Had the damage happened above the surface, the Titanic and those on board may have survived. Instead, over 1500 of its 2200+ passengers died on April 15, 1912.

In health and in life, we often face problems that are different from the parts we can actually see. We may have a stuffy nose and be sneezing, but the real problem is often a summer cold or seasonal allergies. Our car’s engine may suddenly stop on the freeway — but does that mean we ran out of gas, oil, or radiator fluid? Symptoms are different from root causes: finding what your real problem is can make a big difference in choosing a proper solution.

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” — Albert Einstein

Unfortunately, medicine has become commoditized, to the point where doctor’s appointments are reduced to a few minutes, diseases and medical procedures are reduced to billing codes, and medications are involved in about two-thirds of medical appointments. We have come to expect quick and permanent solutions to health issues that may have taken years to develop, almost as if we’re replacing a squeaky fan belt or topping off the engine oil between complete oil changes. 

Unlike our cars, our bodies don’t come with a set of gauges (or even “idiot lights”) to help us figure out exactly what the problem is. Relationships, work conflicts, or other issues may be just as complicated, with many moving parts and interrelated factors. The more complex the situation, the more we need to slow down, assess carefully, and understand the real issues before starting to fix it. 

“If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” — Steven R. Covey 

Scientists and engineers spend a lot of time asking the right questions versus providing immediate answers. Finding the root cause of our problems often takes real detective work. Our problem may be completely different from what we initially thought it was. 

In process engineering, root cause analysis (RCA) literature suggests using six steps to solve problems. They include:

  • Defining the problem
  • Finding all possible causes 
  • Finding the root cause
  • Finding solutions
  • Taking action
  • Verifying the problem is solved

Comprehending complex issues can be tricky, especially when multiple causes interact. One tip is to ask the essential question “why?” at least five times. Why so many? If you chase the possible causes at least five links up the chain, you are likely to better understand how to solve that problem.

For example, your refrigerator isn’t working — why? If there’s no power registering at the outlet — why? If there’s a tripped circuit breaker at the panel — why? If the breaker trips whenever the ice maker dumps its cubes — why? If the insulation on the ice maker’s power wire is frayed — why? If the wire goes through a hole with a sharp edge, I may need to solve that rough edge — just replacing the wire may make the problem come back later.

Don’t forget that last step! There is nothing more frustrating than thinking you have solved a problem, only to find that your “solution” was beside the point. That’s a bit like getting a flat tire, changing it out for a spare, jumping back in the car, only to discover you drove through a bunch of nails and have two flat tires instead of one. You should have just called a tow truck in the first place! 

Whether you are troubleshooting your car on the side of the road, figuring out why your teenager’s grades have slipped, or wondering why that pain in your knee is worse than it was last year (hint: you’ve had a birthday since then), root cause analysis can help you find better, more lasting solutions. Happy problem-solving!

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