What's the problem?


A wrong solution to the right problem is generally better than the right solution to the wrong problem. [One] usually gets feedback that enables one to correct wrong solutions, but not wrong problems. Wrong problems are perpetuated by right solutions to them.”

-Russell Ackoff

A very strong case can be made that the difference between lean thinking and conventional, old school manufacturing (or any business) thinking is that lean folks define the problems differently.


Traditional problem: How can we predict the future better so we can have the right products available at the right time?

Traditional answer: Increasingly complicated forecasting techniques and technologies

Lean problem: How can we become more flexible and responsive to whatever products and quantities customers want in the future?

Lean answer: Focus on cycle time reduction

Traditional problem: What is the right quantity to make at any one time in order to keep the overall cost as low as possible?

Traditional answer: Economic Order Quantity (EOQ) math to optimize batch production

Lean problem: How can we produce such that the cost does not go up when we make only what is needed?

Lean answer: Set up reduction techniques (Single Minute Exchange of Dies – SMED)

The guy responsible for the quote – Russell Ackoff – while not the originator of systems thinking is certainly one of its strongest advocates, and its most eloquent and entertaining voice. His books about what he terms “F/laws” – a play on ‘flaws’ for those who have yet to consume their first cup of coffee this morning – in management thinking are a hoot – mostly because they are so dead on. For instance, “An organization’s planning horizon is the same as its CEO’s retirement horizon”.

But back to the point, “Wrong problems are perpetuated by right solutions to them.” Ackoff is absolutely correct. Once the problem is defined – right or wrong – we seem hell bent on solving it no matter how much time or money goes into the effort, and no matter how convoluted or complicated our solutions become, without ever going back to rethink whether we got the definition of the problem right. How much time and stress do companies put into forecasting the unforecastable? How many Excel spreadsheets or worse yet, how many forecasting software applications have to be bought, implemented and scrapped before the light bulbs click on and someone says, “You know, if our lead times were real, real short none of this would matter.”

Of course, the big driver of this is an ingrained, deep seated belief that the real problem is fundamentally unsolvable. When you begin with an unproven assumption that set up times are an unavoidable, necessary evil that are simply an unpleasant part of manufacturing life, you skip right over any attempt to solve the long set up problem and leap right to batch size math. If you believe that long lead times are simply an inherent part of your particular industry, you leap right to forecasting.

Most insidious, if you believe that people are inherently selfish, dishonest and lazy you never define problems in terms of how all of the collective knowledge and wisdom in the organization can be harnessed, instead leaping to problems of how to control the unruly lot that comes through the door each morning looking to take as much money from you as they can for the least effort.

I would suggest that polling the senior managers, asking what are the biggest problems the company must solve in order to function at a significantly higher level will provide a pretty clear indication of whether they stand a snowball’s chance of becoming lean. The deeper their conviction that the problems can be defined the same way their predecessors defined them thirty years ago, the less likely they are to support lean solutions … and vice versa, of course.

Subscribe to Our Blog

Related posts

How Empowering Employees Translates to Business Success
How to Add Two Manpower Days a Week with the Same Staff
HR Managers Can Dramatically Cut HR Onboarding Time
iDatix CEO Steve Allen Opens Business Incubator in Clearwater, FL