Problem Discovery

By Frédéric Lé

In his book "Kaizen and the art of creative thinking" Shigeo Shingo [1] states there are three essential steps to problem solving:

  • Find the problem

  • Clarify the problem

  • Find the cause.

Finding the right problems is the critical first step that is too often skipped. Engineers and architects are by training proficient problem solvers. What happens when they do not even realize a problem exists, or when they misunderstand the nature of the problem altogether?

In his book "What’s your problem? To solve your toughest problems, change the problems you solve" Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg [2] asks a challenging question: are you solving the right problems? Problem Discovery aims at helping agile teams find the right problems and better frame them.

Find the right problems

Challenging the status quo helps surface new problems the enterprise must address to improve. Actors in the enterprise too often base their decisions and actions on assumptions they think are true but are not. When decisions and actions are based on unverified assumptions, the risk of unintended outcomes is high. When facts are not established, the reasoning that link countermeasures to expected improvements is likely to be flawed. Knowing what you don’t know is critical.

In her book "The pyramid principle: logic in writing and thinking" [3], Barbara Minto writes: "When you identify a problem, essentially what you do is recognize that a particular situation yields a specific result. The problem is either that you do not like the result, or that you cannot explain the result".

Alongside with Barbara Minto, we recommend you start by creating a useful structure of the situation. In a VUCA environment, causal relationships are not likely to be linear and simple. This is why we think the best way to represent a situation is to create a systems view of the enterprise or of part of it. The book "The fith discipline fieldbook" includes a section, "Starting with storytelling" [4] which provides a simple way to model a systems view of an organization. A good system thinker is someone who can see four levels operating simultaneously: events, patterns of behavior, systems and mental models:

  • Events refer to individual events which have recently troubled the enterprise. They are symptoms of the problems you try to identify

  • Patterns of behavior is about understanding how apparently isolated events relate to each other; the authors suggest selecting key variables and tracking them back three or four years to discover trends

  • The systemic structure is about representing the key interrelationships that link these factors; This is an iterative process which consists in adding and removing hypothesis until you can draw a meaningful and possibly simple diagram that provides a useful representation of the system

  • last level is about changing the existing Mental Models of the actors of the enterprise when these are based of flawed causality assumptions.

When representing a systemic structure, implicit or explicit system boundary assumptions are made. We’ll see in the next section that changing these boundary assumptions is key to reframing problems.

Reframe problems

Reframing a problem is about changing the way you see it. Whether you framed the problem yourself or someone else did it for you, it is a good practice to take a step back and possibly modify the way it is defined. For example if you define your problem as the waiting time at a bus stop is too long you will focus on solutions that increase bus frequency which may be sub-optimum from a capacity usage and cost view point.

If you define your problem as the waiting time is perceived as too long you might explore solutions that address the perception problem. For example you might inform passengers in each bus station when the next bus will arrive. By providing this information you create predictability which changes the way the waiting time is perceived.

Reframing is different from analyzing. It is a higher-level activity that helps you think "out of the box". The framing theory developed by Gregory Bateson in 1972 [5] suggests that how something is presented to the audience (called “the frame”) influences the choices people make about how to process that information. Frames are abstractions that work to organize or structure message meaning.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg Notes that "Reframing is not limited to the start of the process, nor should it be done independent of the work of analyzing and solving the problem. On the contrary, your understanding of the problem will develop alongside your solution."

Though you should start doing problem discovery before you spend too much resources and energy analyzing a problem, it should not be done in a waterfall manner. You should consider problem discovery and problem analysis as two concurrent activities that combined help you clarify the problems your enterprise must solve.


1. pcspress.com, 2007, translated by Enna Products Corporation and PCS Inc., ISBN 978-1-897363-59-1
2. Harvard Business Review Press, 2020, ISBN 9781633697225
3. Pearson Education Limited, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-273-71051-6
4. Section 16 by Jennifer Kemeny, Michael Goodman and Rick Karash, a Currency book, 1994, ISBN 0-385-47256-0
5. Arowolo, Sunday. (2017). UNDERSTANDING FRAMING THEORY. 10.13140/RG.2.2.25800.52482.