Trouble-Shooting 101: What's the Problem, Really?

Last Updated Aug 4, 2009 8:28 AM EDT

What's your approach when you encounter a problem? Most often it's a two-stage process: 1) determine what is causing the obstacle and 2) fix it.

That's wonderful if you're dealing with a hang-nail. But in business, problems can be much more complicated than trimming off a broken cuticle. The Japanese call it genchi genbutsu, an approach to trouble shooting that marries learning and improvement.

John Baldoni considers this form of trouble-shooting in formulating three questions to ask as you confront a problem:

  1. What is the real problem?
  2. How do we fix it?
  3. Who is best suited to fix it?
Read his blog post on Harvard Business Publishing, Trouble Shoot Your Way to Recovery.

I've found that the first question, what is the real problem, is often the most difficult to answer correctly. What seems an obvious issue-- a vendor constantly late with product deliveries -- can have many causes, and your own organization might be a contributing factor. Get the problem right and you have a much better chance of designing the right solution.

Related Reading:

What You Don't Know About Making Decisions
Written in 2001, this classic HBR excerpt looks at "inquiry" versus "advocacy" decision making. From Harvard Business School professors David Garvin and Michael Roberto.

How Can Decision Making be Improved?
This working paper from Harvard Business School looks at how scholars have studied the decision-making process and next steps needed to fill gaps in our knowledge.

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.