The Critical Factor (Problem Solving 101)

Known for his Dale Carnegie training expertise, Terry Siebert is writing to inspire leaders to reach their greatest potential. Leadership, today more than ever, may mean the difference between closing the doors or opening new markets. Every month, he'll post help with mindset, business tools and more. Read Full Bio

There is a story about a man who was constantly annoyed with ringing in his ears, bulging eyes, and a flushed face. Over a period of years, he saw several experts — both traditional and non-traditional. After a number of years, he had had his tonsils and appendix removed, his wisdom teeth extracted, and had been on almost every conceivable diet. He even spent a month in Tibet being mentored by a wise old monk.

None of these remedies did anything to address the aggravating problem, which was getting progressively worse. Finally, after an extensive physical, a renowned medical expert told him he had less than a year to live.

With this dire news, since these were going to be his last days on earth, the man took some drastic steps. He quit his job, sold everything he had and booked himself on an around-the-world cruise.

In preparing for this last adventure, he went to a tailor and proceeded to order an entirely new wardrobe. In taking his shirt measurements, the tailor noted that the man had a 16 1/2-inch neck size. When the man saw this on the tailor’s pad of paper, he corrected the tailor and said the correct size should be 15 inches. After remeasuring two times, the tailor reassured the man that 16 1/2 was correct.

Getting quite upset, the man, being so sure of his size, ordered the tailor to make all his shirts with a 15-inch neck size.

To this very upset demand, the exacerbated tailor replied: “OK, I’ll go ahead and do what you ask! But when you come back to me with ringing in your ears, bulging eyes and a flushed face, DON’T BLAME ME!”

As the story demonstrates, failure to find the root cause of a problem can lead to multiple bad decisions. This is strong confirmation of Peter Drucker’s comment: “The right solution to the wrong problem is far more dangerous than the wrong solution to the right problem.” Often times in the problem-solving process, in a world that is demanding that we do more, better, faster, and with ever fewer resources, the temptation is to jump at the obvious, to the detriment of finding the Critical Factor. (A working definition of this term is: That thing which must change before anything else can change.)

The key question that many fail to ask at decision time is: “Is it the problem or a symptom of the problem?” The suggestion is that you keep asking this question until you can’t ask anymore. When you get to final answer, you may have defined the Critical Factor.

Dr. Joseph Juran used the analogy of “peeling the onion.” He referred to an example of one of our national monuments — The Jefferson Memorial:

  • The stone around the perimeter of the monument was deteriorating. Why was it deteriorating?
  • The monument needed to be frequently washed and cleaning detergent was interacting with air pollution to form an acid. Why was it being washed so often?
  • Excessive bird droppings from thousands of birds did quite a bit of damage. Why were so many birds there?
  • Tiny insects were attracted to the evening lights, which illuminated the monument, and the birds came to feed.

Once the Critical Factor was revealed by “peeling the onion,” the solution was to turn the lights on later and off earlier. Ultimately, this led to a 90% decrease in the insect population and an end to the dilemma.

In many problem-solving processes, the first step is to define the problem. With a handle on the problem, one then goes on to work through causes, possible solutions, and finally, an implementable action plan. Beyond that, results are tracked and standardization and/or continuous improvement kick in.

In summary, the temptation and habit for many of us is to do a quick study of the problem. Following the quick study, we get into a Ready-Fire-Aim mode.

For those that have ever fallen into this trap, and many of us have, it is not a very pleasant place to be. So when faced with a problem, rather than wearing the wrong size and dying, rather than destroying a national monument, rather than fixing the wrong problem, let’s spend all the time needed to uncover the Critical Factor, that thing which must change before anything else can change.

Solutions to the right problem sure work better.