What Problem Are You Trying To Solve: An Introduction to Structured Problem Solving

Publications , Working Paper
November 14, 2016

MIT Sloan School of Management Working Paper


Problem formulation is, in our view, the single most underrated skill in all of management practice, and there are few questions more powerful than “what problem are you trying to solve?” Leaders who can formulate clear problem statements both get more done with less effort and move more rapidly than their less-focused counterparts. Even better, clear problem statements are often the key to unlocking the energy and innovation that lies within those who do the core work of your organization, whether it be manufacturing, product development or service.

As valuable as a good problem formulation can be, it is rarely practiced. As we have dug into the underlying psychology it has become clear that the reason we often don't formulate clear problem statements is because doing so doesn’t come naturally. The more psychologists and cognitive scientists dig into the inner workings of the human animal, the more we see that our brains are prone to leaping straight from a situation to a solution without pausing to define the problem clearly. Such “jumping to conclusions” can be remarkably effective, particularly when done by experts facing extreme time pressure like fighting a fire or performing emergency surgery.

But, in daily work, neglecting to formulate a clear problem often prevents innovation and leads to wasted time and money. Good problem formulation and structured problem solving also offer a sustainable alternative to the endless stream of painful reorganizations and overblown initiatives that rarely deliver on their promise.

In this paper, we hope to both build your problem formulation skills and introduce a simple method for tackling those well-formulated problems. We begin with a brief summary of the relevant psychology and explain why problem formulation often does not come naturally and thus requires disciplined and conscious attention. Following that, we describe the basic composition of a good problem statement and summarize the most common failure modes. Then we introduce a simple structured problem-solving method, based on the “A3” developed by Toyota. Finally, we finish with two examples from recent projects that show the power of Mr. Oba’s insight.


Todd Astor
Medical Director, Lung and Heart-Lung Transplant Program Massachusetts General Hospital; Harvard Medical School

Michael Morales
President, Corporacion Industrial, S.A.

Don Kieffer
Founder, ShiftGear Work Design; Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management

Nelson Repenning
Partner, Chief Social Scientist, ShiftGear Work Design; Distinguished Professor, MIT Sloan School of Management

Publication Date
August 2016


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *