Solving Tough Technical Problems: The Importance of Effective Questions

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” Oscar Wilde wrote. 

Since the beginning of our time, we have pondered the universe.  As the sun set on the sea, ancient mariners plotted their course by the stars.  While most sailors slept or tended the sails, a few pondered great mysteries.  What are those points of light in the sky?  Is the earth round?  Does the earth rotate around the sun?  Or is it the other way round?  Why does one light in the north hold a position while the others seem to move?  We can use the fixed northern light for latitude, but what reference can we use for longitude? What is over the horizon?  A safe harbor?  Or danger?

Ever since the beginning of man’s time, questions have been posed and answers sought.  Has there ever really been a meaningful discovery without a question? 

David and I have studied the lessons of those who not only looked at the stars, but looked at earthly objects, some right in front of them, making the discoveries that are the foundations of science, and how we apply it.  

Questions are the foundation of discovery.  The care and purpose of the question determines the direction of a search.  Poor questions lead nowhere. We have discovered the importance of proper questions and apply these principles we discovered as the foundation of effective problem solving.  

In the world of reliability and product and process performance, poor questions break phase with the business and technical strategy, creating intolerable losses and liabilities, while people struggle for answers, or get answers to questions that should not have been asked.

It is time to take a close look at the cost of missing over this simple and important fact: getting answers to questions consumes resources and thus, time, most often in the midst of a crisis, when both are at a premium. 

Executives and leaders are discovering that finding solutions has become secondary to those more interested in putting procedures in place to perpetuate the existence of structure.  Problems are not solved, so more and more tool-based seminars and levels of certification are added. Competing procedures are expanded and made complicated, when simplicity is demanded.  

Developing proper questions is simple, and we will not only teach you, but show you how to link proper questions and effective execution.  We will also show you how to lead the process of getting singular answers in a proper series and the importance of avoiding spurious questions that might be interesting but slow progress.

With a bit of practice, which is why we designed our workshops based on projects and practice, not seminars and tools, you can become…just like us.

I was called to a client a few weeks ago.  As often is the case, time had run out, and we were called and told of a problem needed to be solved fast.  There were several very good engineers, following a path they had been taught and expected to follow.  The path was like a straight-jacket, rigid and slow, with more attention to methods, tools, and documentation than being clever and discovery. 

When I arrived this group of smart engineers asked if I wanted to review what they had done, which was documentation of 27 possible root causes.

First of all, we don’t seek a root cause.  A root cause is an answer to the question, “What is wrong?”  This is an effective question if the list of answers is short. By short, I mean one or two.  Think of every possible candidate as a separate answer.  Questions that provide lists are not effective. A list is a series of answers, and each wrong answer adds nothing to your knowledge base. It is a waste of resources.  Wasting resources is frustrating, and robs a team of the fun and excitement of discovery it deserves, and the chance to be like those who are looking at the stars!

In our project-based workshops, we change the question from, “What’s wrong?” to “What is happening?”  

This new question, by its very nature, emulates the path of discovery!

Once we change the question, we have to ask a question that is actually a precursor. That important question is, “How does this behave?”

Our way of Characterization, starting with a cartoon and our way of labeling the cartoon leads to learning and discovery…in short order.

That is why I never looked at the list or 27 possible causes, and that is why the team had a Causal Explanation is just a few days.  Oh, I almost forgot…the answer was not on the list.

Contact us. We will help you onto the path of discovery you deserve.