Before solutions can be found, the problems must be thoroughly and correctly diagnosed and the decisions concerning solutions to the problems must deal with underlying factors rather then surface symptoms.
For example, a doctor prescribing a medicine for a headache as a symptom without looking into the root cause of it, will only provide a temporary relief and not really “solve” the problem, Accordingly, in properly defining a problem, we must ask some critical questions relating to it. Some of these critical questions may be:
a. What type of problem is it?
b. How large is the deviation from the norm?
c. How quickly has this deviation been observed?
d. What are the critical factors relating to the problem?
e. Why do we want to solve this problem and’ when?
f. Would the cost of solving the problem be justified?
g. Who should solve the problem and what particular method be chosen to solve the problem?
These initial questions would indicate the extent of the problem so that we can become fully aware of it and grasp its significance.
It is very important that the problem be diagnosed as early and correctly as possible. For example, cancer, when detected in earlier stages, may be cured, but in advanced stages it can be fatal.
The early awareness of the problem is the first pre-requisite for dealing with it. However, sometimes we may not even know that there is a problem when in fact it exists until it is too late when we find out.
Colon cancer, for example, does not have obvious symptoms for early detection so that the patient may not even know that he has it until in its advanced stage. At other times, we may be aware of the problem but may not consider it serious enough to find a solution until it becomes a crisis.
Some problems may hit us when their severity can no longer be ignored. For example, too many lives lost in car collisions may require legislation about seat belts in cars in order to solve the problem of death and injury in car accidents. Similarly, the destruction brought about by typhoons and hurricanes may indicate the problem of inadequate early warning systems.
Another problem pointer is a built-in signal in the process of operations so that whenever there is a deviation from expected outcome, it gives out a signal. For example, the Internal Revenue Service computer will create and send a signal to alert an administrator if some tax deductions are excessive in a given tax form so that some action can be taken.
Similarly, our organizational accounting system can be set up in such a manner that any changes in the cash flow or demand, increase in the cost per unit produced, excessive and delayed state of accounts receivables, excessive inventories at hand and so on will attract the manager’s attention quickly for appropriate action.
Some problems are pointed out by third parties such as a user of a product or a consumer representative group. The problem of toxic wastes almost became a crisis when various consumer groups started pointing out the problem of the community health to the government agencies.
Polaroid instant camera came into existence because of a “consumer complaint,” when the consumer happened to be the daughter of the instant camera inventor, who wanted to look at the pictures taken right away.
Thus, if a product is faulty, it can be brought to the attention of the manufacturer. The Federal Safety Commission and Food and Drug Administration in America test products to see if they conform to prescribed standards. If they do not, then there is a problem for which the solution must be found.
There are some problems that come to surface due to sheer idle curiosity. The problem may not be a real one but may be considered a problem if solving it leads to better outcomes. Such a problem is not really the deviation between what is actually happening and what is expected, but a deviation between what is actually happening and what is actually achievable.
For example, when Fredrick Taylor applied scientific methods to production, the productivity improved tremendously so that there was really no problem in production except that the situation was made into a problem by asking, “can we do it better?” Based upon this premise, some organizations are continuously involved in finding problems with existing methods in order to improve upon them.
In general, a problem exists whenever there is a difference between an actual situation and the desired situation. For example, if the total number of incoming students into a college suddenly goes down than what was expected, then this would pose a problem requiring administrative attention and solution.