Is Fixing a Problem the Same as Solving It?

By Taylor Milner

Have you ever thought about the difference between fixing a problem and solving a problem?

To articulate my point, here is an example that many of you with children will appreciate.  I have a wonderful young daughter, but she is not very tidy. She seems to walk out of her clothes and leave them wherever they fall.  My wife and I fix this problem by asking her to pick up the various piles strewn about, but we do not solve it by actually changing her behavior.

As exemplified by my daughter, the difference is important because a fixed problem will likely come back.  A solved problem, however, is likely gone forever. Additionally, the solution can potentially be reapplied across the broader organization, compounding the value of the improvement.

As a leader, your people will likely come and tell you they have solved a problem that has been plaguing your business.  What they may mean, however, is that they have fixed it. Just because a problem goes away or is not occurring anymore does not mean that it has been solved.

With increasingly limited time and resources, fixing problems is no longer enough. Problems will eventually come back. They need to be solved so that they are eliminated permanently, just like keeping those clothes off my daughter’s floor. Below are three tests you can use to check and see if your problems have merely been fixed or if they have truly been solved.


Check the fix against the pattern of failure

The start of every good problem solving process is to develop a strong picture of the pattern of failure around the problem.  Doing this means answering all of the who, what, when, where, and how questions. Examples of these include: what does a failure look like, when do failures occur, where do they occur, etc.

When your people come to you with a potential solution to a problem, ask them to explain how the root cause’s being eliminated explains the pattern of failure.  There should not be any holes in this explanation. All of the characteristics of the pattern of failure should be explained by the root cause they have determined.  If not, you should immediately question the proposed root cause and the proposed solution.


Articulate the impact of a fix

Quite often we fix a problem by changing a mechanical part or a piece of equipment. While this may make a problem go away, it may not address the root cause of why that problem was happening in the first place.  Therefore, when one of your people comes to you and says, “I changed X, that should take care of it,” ask them to articulate how that change has eliminated the root cause of the problem.

For example, let’s say you have a problem with a system’s clogging with sediment.  Your people have fixed the problem by changing the filter that has become plugged. To solve the problem, though, they need to impact the amount of sediment in the system or the clogging of the filter that is occurring.  A fix might get the system back up and running again, but a solution will prevent the failure from happening again in the future.

It is easy to change something.  It is much harder to make sure that change is the right solution and not just a temporary fix.


Recreate the problem and then make it go away again

This may be my favorite and the ultimate test of understanding whether a problem has really been solved.  If a person or a team truly understands the root cause of a problem and has solved it, they should be able to remove the solution and reproduce the problem with the same pattern of failure.  When doing this is not destructive to your process or highly disruptive to your organization, it is incredibly powerful in proving that the solution has really been found.

Your team might think you are a little crazy, but it is perfectly reasonable to ask them to recreate the problem for you so you know that it is solved.

So the next time you are presented with “the solution” to a problem, think about that pile of clothes on my daughter’s floor.  Is that solution really the solution, or did it only fix the problem temporarily?


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