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"Every problem is a gift - without problems we would not grow."- Anthony Robbins

When it comes to dealing with problems, there are only really two skills necessary to get it right:

Defining the problem correctly and asking the right questions.

And, of all the possible questions that should be asked when presented with an issue (there are many), the most crucial, by far, is a deceptively simple one:

What's the standard?

In one of my basic Problem Solving Training Sessions, I present a fairly complex situation and ask the attendees what they think the problem is.

Not what the solution is, what the problem is.

It's a trick question.

There is no way of knowing what the problem is until someone asks 'What SHOULD have happened?'

Exactly. What should have happened in that situation? Until you know, you can't say what the problem is.

What is the standard against which we are comparing this current situation?

If there is a gap between what we expected to happen and what actually happened, that's our problem.


There are two types of problem.

#1 is a situation in which the standard is known but the current performance has fallen below it for some reason, in which case, a root cause is needed.

Then we can ask:

How did this happen? Is the standard achievable? What is the process for achieving it? Is it understood? And so on.

In finding Root Cause, we are in a position to use Problem Solving Methodologies to bring current performance back to Standard.

#2 is a situation in which we have changed the standard and need to bring current performance up to meet it.

We are now engaged in an Improvement or Kaizen project.

In both cases, we need to be rigorous in our quest to establish exactly what the standard is, what it should be, and how we propose to achieve it.

There are many supplementary questions, of course, as we navigate the improvement process - Is the standard clear? How do we know if it has been achieved? Is it verifiable? How can we check?

I would suggest you take a few seconds, right now, to write down the biggest issues facing you or your business right now.

Now ask yourself:

Is there a clear standard?

Is there a process in place to meet that standard?

Is it being followed?

But above else, when our team comes to us and says:

'We've got this problem - what we need to do is x, y and z.'

We should ask, and continue to ask: What's the standard?

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