How business, IT and manufacturing leaders get problem solving all wrong

Problems are bad, right? They must be solved, avoided, mitigated and managed – or must they? What if business, IT and manufacturing leaders are wrong about problem solving? Perhaps, it’s time to take a closer look at problem solving within your organization and what you can learn from it.

A good place to start is looking at how your organization perceives problems. Is there a general perspective that all problems are negative? Almost every breakthrough of human history began with a problem that a smart, perceptive person recognized as an opportunity.

Problems can help you understand the environment in which your organization operates, the various factors that influence performance and the effects of various decisions. What can your problems tell you about your organization’s limitations, potential and capabilities? You may be overlooking some key opportunities.

Not everything is a problem. Business, IT and manufacturing leaders often lump a number of situations into the category of problems. There are 3 key concepts that should be clarified and treated differently.

“Events” happen during the course of normal business. They may have positive or negative impact or they may have no impact at all. Events are indicators that activities are taking place and most of them require no action.

“Incidents” are situations where the unexpected can occur, and occasionally outside normal/acceptable bounds. Like events, incidents may have positive, negative or no impact on the organization, but (unlike events) require some level of investigation and follow-up to return business to normal operations.

“Problems” relate to the underlying cause(s) of incidents and have the potential not only for immediate, but also continuing or recurring impact on the organization. Problems (particularly serious ones) require investigation not only into their causes and impact, but also their potential for recurrence and the need for an action plan.

It’s important to differentiate among events, incidents and problems to eliminate noise from the problem-solving process and focus efforts on what actually requires the organization’s attention.

Not all problems have solutions; not all problems need solutions; and not all solutions should be implemented. Leaders often consider the number of problems solved as a measurement of the success of a problem-solving process.

Success isn’t the quantity of problem solving – it’s the quality of the solutions, actionability and maximizing positive impact for the organization. Focusing on impact will help leaders (and their teams) understand that not all problems require a solution. Some situations are acceptable without action. For those problems with identified solutions, it doesn’t always make sense to implement the solution. Solutions should be considered investments, involving both value and cost dimensions. Some solutions may not generate a positive ROI, or the opportunity cost (of not doing something else) may not be acceptable to the organization. In these situations, it may be better for the organization to forgo the solution and focus resources on other higher-value activities.

If the business, IT and manufacturing leaders in your organization don’t understand that not every event, incident or problem is a problem; not all are bad; and not all require solutions, then, perhaps, they are also wrong about problem solving. Kepner-Tregoe has been helping organizations develop problem-solving skills for more than 50 years, and can help your organization too!


Kepner-Tregoe has a powerful toolkit for root-cause analysis and preventing future problems that organizations worldwide have utilized for more than 50 years.

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