Jerry Joynson received his BSc in Chemical Engineering from Loughborough University of Technology in the UK. He spent over three decades in the oil industry, including the role of Technology Director for SBM Offshore in Malaysia. As a consultant for Front End Thinking, he helps customers understand their problems correctly to find the best solution to their needs for problem solving, idea generation, conceptual developments, FEED study review, and for product and technology development.
Understanding the true underlying need
In my experience a great many individuals in need of a solution to a problem are clear about the immediate limitations or constraints they may be experiencing yet are not necessarily clear about what represents an ideal outcome or at what level they need the problem solving. The pressure to ‘get the job done’ means people can be unable or unwilling to invest time now for significant future benefits and this often stops any further exploration of the issues.
Plant operators for example will often phrase a request as; “I have a problem and what I need is…” where the “what I need is…” can often be the shortest/fastest route to a fix, but not necessarily a good fix against a variety of wider measures including economics, safety, robustness, human effort, etc. Imagine a frequent pump failure which leads to a request for a bigger pump. The root cause however shows that the pump vibration and failures are due to cavitation. Size has no bearing on the problem.
Are we solving the right problem?
Improved solutions are found by trying to both fully understand the underlying problem and the wider needs, and then identify what would solve the greatest number of needs in one go. A quick fix may be easier or faster maintenance of a component, a better solution may be to provide a component that requires zero maintenance, and a much better solution may remove the need for the component yet still fulfill the overall function.
However, the underlying problems and user needs do not easily get communicated on paper, or through intermediaries. Wider understanding is generally vastly improved if one can spend time talking with the party in need of assistance and listening carefully, and the value of this activity is often underestimated.
Even if one cannot speak with the person with the need for a solution it is worth trying to understand the wider picture, to envisage an ideal solution and explore how that may be delivered. Would the client see it as an ideal solution? Are there part solutions?
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