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March 2009: Lets Discriminate - between Problems and Opportunities!

You have quality problems, causing you to resort to excessive inspection, handling customer complaints, re-running product, crediting services, etc. – all affecting your costs and bottom-line.  It also creates longer lead times, not to mention disgruntled customers who might take their business elsewhere.

That is a problem that needs to be solved and quickly if you are to stay in business.  Does it mean that you have an opportunity to improve quality and reduce cycle time?  Absolutely!  Does that mean problems and opportunities are the same?  Not quite!

Many times these words (problems and opportunities) are used interchangeably.  While using this terminology is a positive way of addressing ‘problems’, this substitution can be rather limiting and potentially stifle the ‘opportunity’ for improvement!

Lets start by looking at the Wikipedia definition of both terms:

  • Problem - A problem is an obstacle that makes it difficult to achieve a desired goal, objective or purpose. It refers to a situation, condition, or issue that is yet unresolved. In a broad sense, a problem exists when an individual becomes aware of a significant difference between what actually is and what is desired. In business and engineering, a problem is a difference between actual conditions and those that are required or desired. Often, the causes of a problem are not known, in which case root cause analysis is employed to find the causes and identify corrective actions. An optimization problem, on the other hand, is finding the best solution from all feasible solutions. A good example of this type of problem is the traveling salesperson problem that is based on calculating the most efficient route between many places.”
  • Opportunity - An opportunity is defined as an appropriate or favorable time or occasion; a situation or condition favorable for attainment of a goal; a good position, chance, or prospect, as for advancement or success.  In the business world, it may be defined as an exploitable set of circumstances with uncertain outcome, requiring commitment of resources and involving exposure to risk.

People who would replace the 'problem concept with ‘opportunity’ might agree with Joseph Sugarman who said, "Each problem has hidden in it an opportunity so powerful that it literally dwarfs the problem. Greatest success stories were created by people who recognized a problem and turned it into an opportunity,” This statement clearly distinguishes between problem and opportunity.

Many organizations are currently implementing lean strategies and streamlining their processes. Those that have ‘leaned’ their operations and implemented ‘flow’ to the hilt, have a ‘six-sigma’ culture, and are recognized as a world-class leader, do not have ‘problems’ in its processes. Does that mean they do not have any opportunities to exploit existing solutions?

In some cases, there are problems that do not lend themselves to cost-effective solutions; or are limited by technology or knowledge capabilities. But that does not prevent an organization from seeking alternatives that may alleviate the situation.  Entrepreneurs are known for finding opportunities and creating needs where no problems existed.

There is nothing wrong with calling ‘problems’ ‘opportunities,’ positive feeling might be created and issues resolved.  But, in the process of solving the problem, real opportunities might be missed.  Most time is spent ‘problem solving’ (read ‘firefighting) and while some of the associated solutions might create ‘pockets of excellence’ in the short term, real long term ‘opportunities’ could be overlooked or not considered.

Organizations need to first discern and then discriminate between problems and opportunities.  A problem may be focused on an internal or an immediate issue, while an opportunity addresses those situations that are beyond the immediate, to the outside world and its application to create new products and enter new markets.  For example, if we use fasteners that corrode, causing failure, we have a problem that needs to be solved.  In the parlance described above, it would be presented as an opportunity to create a fastener that does not corrode.  That truly is not an opportunity, simply a problem that needs to be solved in order to stay in business.  An opportunity, on the other hand, would be to ask the question ‘who else might want a fastener that doesn’t corrode?’ In this case we have identified an opportunity.  Not only is the problem fixed, but a new might also get identified.

Problems happen and they need to be addressed; priority one is to stay in business.  And while problems / fire-fighting take up a substantial amount of our time at work, it is important that we learn not only to recognize opportunities, but to take full advantage of them. 

Either way, let’s first learn to discern, then discriminate – between problems and opportunities!

Past Articles
Lean Practices • Kaizen • Six Sigma • ISO 9000
PIVOT Management Consultants, a Los Angeles based change management consulting firm,
specializing in business process improvements through Six Sigma, Lean Enterprise,
ISO based standards, and project management services.