It seems many of us have a problem with problems.

This came to light most recently when I was delivering Lean Six Sigma training in Eastern Europe. Quite a few of the delegates were struggling with the task of creating a Problem Statement.

At first, I thought that this difficulty with looking for problems was perhaps a cultural issue or maybe it was due to the fact that the delegates’ function was in finance – a department very few organisations want to find problems in. But on reflection, I realised that this is certainly not the first time I have encountered this problem with problems.

There are many who find the definition and project selection part of Lean Six Sigma difficult. The word ‘problem’ has become so plagued with negative connotations that the thought of raising an issue feels unnatural and often frightenA situaition. ing. For many, it seems to induce the fear of being viewed as a bad manager or an incapable leader.  In fact, one delegate – a US citizen with a military background – said that in the US, those in the Armed Forces are not even allowed to talk about their issues as ‘problems’ but must refer to them as ‘situations’. 

And the negative connotations surrounding problems are understandable; looking for flaws and highlighting problems can seem like you’re rocking the boat. What’s more, with an increasing cultural pressure to stay positive in the workplace – coined in an article in The Guardian as the ‘cult of compulsory happiness’ – it seems that the pressure to avoid problems is only increasing.

But this fear to point out problems can cause serious damage…

Why is this a problem?

One popular example of the damage caused by viewing problems negatively can be found in a popular study of the failings of Nokia called ‘Distributed Attention and Shared Emotions in the Innovation Process: How Nokia Lost the Smartphone Battle’.Propping up Nokia's software.

In 2007, Nokia was the leading phone manufacturer with half of all smartphone sales in the world, with Apple’s iPhone representing only five percent of the global market. However, by the end of 2010, the tables had turned. Nokia had failed to make a smartphone that could rival the iPhone forcing the company to retreat; it replaced its CEO, stopped software development, and became a hardware provider, ultimately exiting the mobile phone business until its recent return in 2016.

However, the study suggests that Nokia’s downfall could have been avoided if it had simply admitted its problems…

The study suggests that in 2007 Nokia had enough information about Apple’s venture to have been able to successfully challenge it, but this would have meant ditching Symbian, the operating software Nokia had already invested in heavily.

While middle managers had been aware for a while that Symbian was not working well, a fear of providing negative information to their superiors stopped them raising the issue. This avoidance of problems meant that the senior managers only ever received positive reports of Symbian. By the time the senior team became aware of the issue and consequently made the decision to get rid of Symbian, the damage had already been done and Nokia were too far behind.

Don’t make problems a problem

While Nokia is of course an extreme example, the damaging effect of avoiding problems can be seen in all areas of business and life. Whether it’s problems in a process or your personal workload, the only way they can be addressed is by admitting there is a problem.

To encourage people to begin actively identifying problems, and therefore improving, we must remove the stigma attached to the word itself. In Lean Six Sigma projects, we start with a problem, one where we freely admit we don’t know the cause or solution. This is because problems are nothing to be ashamed of, but are exciting opportunities for improvement.

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