Problem solving 101

Updated: Oct 6

Important principles in the Six Sigma problem solving process, which I have learned over a lifetime, can't be fully explained in a single blog post. However, I hope the following may be helpful in understanding how problems faced by the Legislature might be addressed more effectively than the process used in the 2019 Utah tax reform bill.

Problem statement: Much of the hard work of problem solving is in accurately stating the problem. It may sound simple, but it isn't! Believe it or not, this is where a lot of the hard mental work is done. Some of the important principles here:

· The problem statement must be solution independent. It cannot be emphasized how important and how difficult this is. For example, in the 2019 tax reform effort, one might be tempted to state the problem as: “We are taking in too much money from income tax and not enough money from sales tax.” If you state the problem that way, there is only one solution: cut income tax and raise sales tax. But that precludes any other possible solutions – including possible ground-breaking innovations. Much better to state: “It is projected certain government services will be underfunded in the future under current law.” It allows for brainstorming and benchmarking other solutions.

· The problem statement should itemize negative outcomes from any changes that we want to avoid. It is often the case when changing something in a system that we solve one problem and create two more. So, in the case of tax reform, part of the problem statement might be “the solution cannot increase the cost of living for Utah families making less than $50K per year”.

· From the very beginning, including creation of the problem statement, a multi-functional team must be involved in the process. Truly innovative solutions flow from teams where there is a great diversity of ideas. So in the case of systemic changes in government, a team representing all interested viewpoints must be involved in the process - from the very beginning.


Generating ideas: The Russian engineer and inventor Genrich Altshuller proposed an interesting theory during the 1970’s: Every problem has already been solved, possibly in a field unrelated to the problem you are currently struggling with, and all you have to do is find it and apply it to your problem. His methodology, known by the Cyrillic acronym TRIZ, has some interesting tools to help with this discovery. Without getting into the weeds of TRIZ, the general idea is that when looking for potential solutions to your problem statement, you need to cast a wide net at the start of the process.

· Public input: This is a valuable way to obtain proposal ideas for systemic changes in government policy. But the public needs to feel like their input is appreciated and will be considered.

· Brainstorming: This is a common technique but is made more powerful by a solid problem statement and a multi-functional team with lots of viewpoints and diversity. A good problem-solving coach can guide this process and keep it from turning into a big argument; the rules of brainstorming dictate "no criticism allowed" during this stage. Get the ideas flowing and out there; refinement comes later.

· Benchmarking: In regards to the imbalance in Utah’s tax structure, we are lucky that we are one of 50 states. Thinking of the TRIZ philosophy, it seems likely other states have faced similar issues. What has been tried before, and how successful was it? It’s always better to learn from the mistakes (and successes) of others.


Consolidation of ideas: After the last step, the next step involves taking all the proposals, reviewing them carefully, and refining the ideas into two or three proposals, usually by a smaller working team. Once that is done, the team takes each of the proposals and does a partisan-neutral analysis of each, using as much as possible known models and data to project the effects of each proposal on solving of the problem statement. These analyses must be analytical and data-rich, which will help in the next step.

Communication of the down selected proposals: In industry, this is the step where you go to management, present each proposal, and get a decision. In the case of government policy, ‘the boss’ are the citizens!

It is crucial in this presentation that skilled use of graphs is utilized. For those of you old enough, think of Ross Perot and his charts. We need more of that in government. Utah’s citizens are smart enough to understand there are tradeoffs with any proposal and will accept them as long as we’re not trying to pull a fast one over on them.

Good graphs are harder than they look, and it takes skill to create a graph that enlightens the audience rather than confuses them. Probably the most famous graph in history (among statistical geeks) was a study of the 1812 French invasion of Russia by the French cartographer Charles Joseph Minard; click here to check it out. You can tell at a glance the general route of the invasion force from Kaunas to Moscow and back on a map, the dwindling size of Napoleon's army during the march, the dates of each step in the march, and the freezing temperatures the French soldiers suffered on their march back. For us data geeks, it's a fascinating work of art!


Down select: If all interested parties have been involved in an open, collaborative process from the beginning, and people of goodwill have cooperated in the hard, mental work required by this process, and if the final proposals are skillfully analyzed and presented - the best solution should be relatively obvious. This open, transparent process, frankly presenting the pros and cons and respecting the intelligence of the citizens, should result in not only the best solution, but also acceptance by interested parties.


In summary:

- A diverse team representing all the various viewpoints must be involved from the very beginning.

- The hardest part of problem solving is the difficult mental work of creating a robust problem statement.

- Cast a wide net looking for ways to solve the problem.

- Propose several solutions, with careful analysis based on facts, data and robust modeling rather than political ideology, and making skilled use of graphs for communication.

- At every step of the process, communicate clearly, honestly and openly. All solutions will have pros and cons, but Utah's citizens will support the work if they don't feel like the Legislature is pulling a fast one on them.

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