Climbing the Branches of the Problem Tree

by Mike Shipulski

Climbing The Branches Of The Problem Tree The problem tree is big, old, and rugged with a fully developed branch network and the deepest roots. And nestled in its crown, set directly over the trunk, is the hidden tree house where the problem solvers play.

The problem tree has a left and right, with its why branches to the right and why-nots to the left. To the right, the biggest why limbs grow from the trunk then split into a series of smaller why branches which terminate at the why leaves. It’s the same on the left – big why-not limbs, why-not branches, why-not leaves.

To start their game, the problem solvers first agree on the biggest why limbs – the main reasons why to solve the problem. Once labeled, the team asks why again, and builds out the why side of the canopy – narrowing as they go. They continue their hierarchical why mapping until they get to the why leaves – the lowest-level whys. The last part is most tenuous because as the branches get smaller they can’t hold the weight and they sway in the political wind. But as the organization watches impatiently, the problem solvers know they must hang onto the smallest branches and stretch themselves hard to reach the leaves.

Once the whys are mapped the solvers know why they must solve the problem. They know who wants it solved (the biggest branches can have their own sponsor) and how the whys (and their sponsors) compliment or compete. And where the rubber meets the road (leaf level), they know why it must be solved – think manufacturing floor. Like a spider web, the why network sticks the solvers to the right problem.

Novice solvers think they’re ready to solve, but the seasoned climbers know it’s time swing on the wild side. It’s time to climb where few dare – the politically charged left side – the why-nots. Slowly, carefully, the climbers step from the safety of their tree house and explore why the company cannot, has not, or may not want to solve the problem. There are usually three big why-not branches – constraints, capability, and culture.

When the solvers shimmy out on the constraint branch, they usually find the smaller no-time-to-solve-it branch, with its leaves of – existing operating plans, product launches, other big problems, unfilled open positions, and reduced headcount. Though real, these branches are tough to talk about because the organization does not want to hear about them. And, sometimes, for all their dangerous climbing and shimmying, the solvers are accused of not being team players.

Their climb on the capability branch is challenging, but not for its complexity. There’s usually one branch – we don’t know how to do it, with a couple leaves – we’ve never done it before and we don’t do it that way. The capability branch is difficult because it causes the organization to overtly admit a fundamental gap. Also, it threatens the subject matter experts, who are important to the solution.

The culture branch is toughest of all. Its limbs can be slippery and sometimes have cover names (so it’s difficult for me to list them), but thematically, the best climbers know the branches represent the worn patterns of company behavior. Often, the behaviors (and the climate they create) have not been formalized, and shining a light on them may is too bright for some. But when the solvers find a why-not branch that cuts across one of these worn cowpaths, that’s just what they must do. Because without changing the behavioral pattern, there can be no solution.

With the problem tree fully built-out on a single page, it’s clear why the problem should be solved and what’s in the way (why-not). And when the solvers present it, the company decides if the whys are important enough to overcome the why-nots. If it’s a go, the first step is to prune the why-nots – resources to solve the constraint problems, tools and training to improve the capability problems, and a change in leadership behavior to solve the cultural problems. After those are taken care of, the problem definition phase comes to a close.

The problem tree defines the problem, it does not solve it. But through the process of building it out, the problem solvers (problem definers) help the company clear cut the forest of why-nots. Now, standing tall, standing alone, clearly seen for what it is, solving the problem is a breeze.

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Mike ShipulskiDr. Mike Shipulski brings together the best of Design for Manufacturing and Assembly, Axiomatic Design, TRIZ, and lean to develop innovative products and technologies. His blog can be found at Shipulski On Design.