Problem Solving 1: The Problem is the Problem

This video explores the first step of the problem solving process – how to identify the problem. It opens with an example involving human-powered flight, takes a look at three common pitfalls when problem solving, provides two methods for focusing your efforts on the right things, and ends with examples of how to structure a problem statement.


Solving the Right Problem

I’m “standing here” at the English Channel, where just a few short years ago, aviation history was made.

Back in 1959 a British industry magnate named Henry Kremer had a vision – what if man could develop an airplane that could fly solely by human power.  He wasn’t the first to come up with this idea, but he thought he could help the process along, so he established the Kramer Prize.   He offered the princely sum of 100,000 pounds (about $2.6 million) for the first person to build a plane that could fly across the English Channel under human power.  That’s more than 20 miles, by the way!

Eighteen years went by, and dozens of teams tackled the challenge, but all of them failed.  It seemed like an impossible task.  Then this guy named Paul MacCready comes along.  He looked at the problem and examined how the various teams went about trying to solve it, and came to the stunned realization that they were trying to solve the wrong problem.  Famously, he said,


“The problem is that we don’t understand the problem.”


What MacCready noticed was that these teams would spend upwards of a year building a plane based on their theories and calculations.

Then they would drag it out of the hanger for a test flight, and moments later it would be a pile of wreckage when it failed.  It would then take them another year to modify their calculations and rebuild the plane based on that single experience, and then have another go at it.  They might get a little farther, but they would fail again.  Progress was incredibly slow.

What MacCready realized was that developing human powered flight wasn’t the problem.  The problem was that the process was wrong – it was taking too long between tests.  So he came up with a better problem to solve:  How to build a plane that can be rebuilt in hours, not months.

By focusing on finding a better process to build planes quickly, he could test and improve at a much faster rate than everyone else.  His planes were built of Mylar, aluminum tubing, and wire, and the first one didn’t even work.  But he was able to rebuild and retest within hours, sometimes flying three or four planes in a single day.

With his better understanding of the problem, and rapid accumulation of experience, in only six months, MacCready and his team built the Gossamer Albatross which won a smaller Kramer prize, and a year after that, they had built the Gossamer Condor, which successfully flew across the English Channel under human power.

Figuring out what the actual problem is that you need to solve is the first step of the problem solving process.  It is possibly the most important step, but it is also one we most often get wrong.  History is filled with examples of people wasting effort and resources solving the wrong problem.  They end up tired and poorer but no closer to the solution they were seeking.

How to Identify the Problem:  Common Pitfalls

And there are a number of pitfalls that come along with this step; if you fall into one of them, you run the risk of pointing your team in the wrong direction and risking failure when you come out the other end.

Assumption.  The first trap is immediately assuming that you know what the problem is.  What is apparent to the eye isn’t always the root problem that needs to be solved.  Often, problems are really just symptoms of something else that actually needs to be fixed.

It’s kind of like taking Alka-Seltzer – it might make your cough and runny nose go away for a while, but it doesn’t cure the common cold.  They haven’t cracked the code on that one yet.  Make sure you aren’t just treating a symptom.

Jumping to Solution.  Another trap is jumping straight to a solution because you think you know what the answer is.

Maybe you do, but maybe you don’t.  Ever heard that saying,

If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. - Bernard Baruch Click To Tweet

That’s what we’re talking about here.  Pretty soon you are going around using that hammer on screws, nuts and bolts, your car, and your laptop.   Just possibly, you could be making things worse instead of better.  Sometimes the hammer is the right tool, other times, maybe you need a screw driver, or some pliers.

Activity Trap.  Another pitfall is the Activity Trap, something that comes from what statisticians call a Type III error  – you are getting busy doing stuff, but it’s the wrong stuff , and it won’t solve the problem.   People tend to think that if they are busy, then they are making progress, but that’s not always the case.

Kind of like the guy who is straightening the deck chairs on the Titanic as it slowly goes down.  He’s busy, but it’s not helpful.

It is important not to skip this step or you could find yourself in the same kinds of traps.


So how do you go about this all-important first step?  There are a couple ways, but the thing to remember is, try to keep it simple.

Start at the End.  One way I like to do this is to follow the advice of author and leadership expert Steven R Covey, and “Begin with the end in mind.”

Begin with the end in mind. - Steven Covey Click To Tweet

Which really just amounts to asking yourself in the simplest possible terms, what exactly are you trying to accomplish?  What is the basic need that you are trying to fulfill, what is the desired outcome?  What does success look like?

Maybe for breakfast, you just want buttered toast.  For now, just focus on the desired end state – butter on toast.  How it gets there is what we figure out in the other steps of the process

Ask Why?  A second approach to help you get to the bottom of the problem is to use the “Five Whys” method made popular by Toyota and which is now part of the Lean Six Sigma methodology.  There’s nothing fancy about it; really, all you do is be like your annoying kid brother and just keep asking “Why” at least five times, and eventually you get to the root of the real problem.  It might go something like this:

Hey, the customers are complaining – Why?

It smells gross in here – Why?

Maybe because there’s a dead lizard in the air vent – Why?

Probably because he crawled in through that hole  – Why?

Because no maintenance has been done for 8 years – Why?

Because no one was specifically named to do the preventive maintenance after Fred Jones left.


As you can see, just spraying some aerosol to kill the odor doesn’t solve the real problem. And next time, the thing in the air vent might be bigger or nastier.  Better put someone in charge of maintenance so you don’t have this problem again.   Use the 5-whys to identify what the real problem is.

Problem Statement

There are other ways to do this, but whatever method you use, in the end it’s a good idea to restate the problem as clearly and succinctly as you can.

A good problem statement will focus you and your team on solving the right problem and not wasting time and energy.  In the statement, try to answer the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why.  Don’t have any assumptions in there, and don’t discuss the How – that’s what the rest of the steps of the problem solving method are for.

MacCready’s problem statement for winning the Kramer prize might have been something along the lines of:

With my engineering team (Who) in the next six months (When), Design a human-powered airplane that can be assembled, flown, and repaired within one day (What)  in order to win the Kramer prize (Why).


You know, there’s an XPRIZE out there right now awarding $20 million to anyone who can launch, land, and operate a rover on the surface of the moon.  If we get the problem statement right, we might just have a shot!

So next time you are faced with a problem, do yourself a favor, stop for a moment, and make sure you really know what the true problem is.  If you do this first step of the problem solving process right, you will be well on the path to finding a good solution.  If it was good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for us.

Thanks for watching.



Gossamer Condor/MacCready Story:

Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Efective People,Simon and Schuster, New York, 1989, p. 98




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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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