“Problem”, in the world of creativity, is in fact an opportunity to give birth to something new. As such, individuals or companies require to identify problems relevant to their needs. This is the first step for their study, research, problem solving, product or technology development etc. Therefore, while taking this step, a first timer (even the experienced ones at times) is likely to face this basic question – how to find a problem?
The answer might be very simple for some but difficult for others, depending on their operating environment. For an engineer in industry certain types of problems surface everyday and are visible enough to identify without much effort. For example, a machine is not giving the required surface finish or a product is not lasting to its declared life. On the other hand, finding a suitable problem for the next level technology may need more effort. Similarly, a research scholar or a graduate student or a start-up needs to put some effort to identify the right problems.
Therefore, it seems useful to explore the ways to find a problem and understand the basic principles behind them. Surprisingly, not much material exists to present such ways under a common umbrella. This article aims to do so based on my direct experience and learning. Hopefully it would help someone in search of a problem.
problem identification vs. problem solving
Let me set the context straight at the beginning. This article will not cover problem solving but a preceding stage. Problem solving steps can be useful after the problem is identified. Relevant problem solving steps can help refining the problem to ensure that the right problem is solved. However, I leave that discussion for another day.
ways to find a problem
Considering the importance of finding a problem we might expect to find many well defined structured methods to do so. The truth is, there are methods in practice. However, not all methods are written down. Many a times we follow such methods as instincts. The matter of comfort is that none of these are really complex in principle and can be practiced by anyone.
Some of the most useful ways are listed below. These are based on a review of previously identified problems. Any one or a combination of methods may be in use for a given study.
- Feel it yourself
- Observe others
- Look around yourself
- Service experience
- Sneak into your domain
- Ask an expert
- Literature survey
- Happenings around the world
- Leading universities
- Works of geniuses
- Technology Forecasting
In the subsequent sections of this article I will try to explain these with suitable examples from my own experience or citing famous inventions. Some of these examples can be found in the “Can You Solve These Problems” page of our website.
1. feel it yourself
The first way to identify a problem is to feel a problem first hand. Everyday in our life we go through may experiences. Some of them could be excellent problems but often we do not notice from that perspective. With a curious mind it is quite possible to note a few problems from our personal experiences.
Let me start with my personal experience. This is about ear-ache felt by many passengers in aircraft, including children, during take-off and descent phases. I read about this problem even before I flew on an actual aircraft. However, it is not until recently I felt the pain for the first time. It made me wonder – why should not there be a solution to this? Come on! The modern airliners are engineering marvels in many aspects, yet this is a discomfort nobody solved yet! Is not it an interesting problem to solve?
2. observe others
Similar to feeling a problem first hand, observing and interacting with others for their lifestyle, difficulties, needs etc. can help identifying many problems.
India has got the second largest population with diabetes. I am sure all of us know a few of them in person. For such people, along with medicines, monitoring the blood sugar level is a crucial part of treatment. Many of them even require daily monitoring at frequent intervals. The traditional monitoring options need pricking with a needle, which is definitely not a pleasant experience. Why should not there be a better quality treatment through a non-invasive yet accurate blood sugar monitoring technique? Is not that a problem worth solving? Is not that a problem we all would have observed?
3. look around yourself
This way is still about observation but beyond people, basically looking at everything else in our surroundings, including nature. A lot of things happen around us every moment and occasionally we pick up marvelous problems from there.
If we try to relate this method with the known practices, then “Go Look See” of the Lean philosophy is somewhat relevant but not completely. “Go Look See” concentrates on a specific place but an inventor needs to look around and notice opportunities in many places.
The most prominent example that comes in my mid is Velcro. Possibly we all have heard of the story of the inventor, a Swiss Electrical Engineer named George de Mestral . Returning from a walk with his dog on a lovely summer day, he noticed burrs clung to his clothes and the dog’s fur. This observation gave him the problem to make use of the special ability of the burr. Velcro was the solution!
Tips: Various databases can give readily available natural observations.
4. service experience
This one is perhaps easy, at least in principle. For an existing product the service experience gives indications about where the serious problems are. Service events, customer complaints, feedbacks, surveys are effectively used mechanisms for this aspect of problem identification.
Do I need to really state that Boeing 737 Max case is a classic example? I am sure many of you have already thought of that example yourselves. Their Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) problem is serious enough to take note and start solving. Every time a problem from this route need not be as serious as Boeing 737 Max but often is a good source of problems for an organisation.
5. Sneak into your domain
Occasionally digging into its domain of mastery to find new problems (opportunities) is an healthy option for companies to have sustainable future. Knowing your domain gives you an opportunity to know the technological gaps and pick up problems to have better or new products. Review of a domain should also include technology news of competitors, recommendations from regulators, governments etc. Not catching up with a competitor’s technological level may be disastrous.
For example, significant reduction of emissions from aircraft engines are talked about by the industry in general and regulators are putting up more stringent targets. In such scenario can one company sit comfortably when its competitors are acting on the same problem?
A similar approach is equally important for individuals too. Looking back to the basic shortcomings in the person’s field can give a direction. For example, a Mechanical Engineer interested in internal combustion (IC) engine can start looking at the technological shortcomings he might already know. Any such engineer would know that fuel characteristics contribute to knocking or bio-fuels are a good alternative to conventional fuels but are not good for NOx emissions. What about starting with one of these as a problem?
6. ask an expert
A simple but effective option is to ask an expert about a problem. An expert can be a research guide, teacher, supervisor, experienced colleague and even a customer – depending on the field of work. More importantly an export can be from a different field altogether. There is no alternative to the wisdom of another fellow human.
I believe this does not surprise us at all. In our life, in one stage or another, we would have asked someone’s opinion to find a problem. Do we not ask our teachers to help us identify a problem for our project works? Well, I asked for.
7. literature survey
Finally, perhaps the most well known and widely accepted method! Undoubtedly, there exists tremendous knowledge in the libraries, journals, company achieves, patent databases etc. Reviewing these vast sources helps one understand the prior art and available opportunities. However, an area of interest and relevant keywords are required to start with literature survey. The area of interest may have come from any of the above methods.
For example, the Mechanical Engineer mentioned in “Sneak into Your Domain” can start literature survey for NOx emission for bio-fuels.
Often in literature surveys patent database search is not considered. It could be largely due to unawareness of its usefulness or unawareness of the search methods or lack of tools. An effective literature survey should consider patent search too and contrary to the general belief, an expensive tool is not necessary for such search.
Tips: There exist a few major patent databases. Anyone interested to learn about patent searching formally can explore the courses offered by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Our “Useful Links” page provides relevant details in this regard.
8. happenings around the world
This option can be a bit informal compared to the literature survey approach, in that one can draw an inspiration form any commonly available sources of information. Such sources can include news paper, TV channels, magazines, reports – basically everything that we see around us. The width of such sources varies depending on our interests, professions etc. For example, someone fond of sports may follow sports keenly but another person may not. There is no good or bad thing here but keeping the mind open for opportunities is the key.
The next example is the unfortunate crash of Air France flight AF447, an Airbus 330, over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The investigation report came out three years later and it concluded erroneous pilot reaction following the obstruction of pitot probes (used to measure aircraft speed) due to ice crystals as the primary cause of the accident. The investigators did their part perfectly. However, a question remains – why do we allow pitot tube to freeze and then expect the pilots to react correctly? This system has been part of all aircraft without any noticeable change in the basic technology for more than 100 years of manned flight, when other aircraft systems have changed dramatically! All through these years pitot probes are known to be vulnerable to icing! I therefore believe that there exists a problem to solve, i.e. to replace pitot probes with an accurate and less vulnerable system.
What about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic? Its presence around us has given rise the many new products. Obviously, those people picked up problems from this event around us.
9. leading universities
Leading university websites are a good source of knowing about the recent research works, which can give one a direction to pick up his/her own problem. It is useful to know the state of the art research works. This is a must to do activity for those interested in carrying out research in prominent universities.
As an example one can visit to the research page of the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering on their official website.
10. work of geniuses
There are many works of genius scientists and inventors. Cannot these give us some problems to new inventions? Definitely these can. Incomplete work of a genius or even further development based on a previous work is a promising lead.
Remember Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment? About 270 years back he demonstrated that static charges from lightning could be stored in a capacitor. In these many years we have much better devices available but not much has happened again in similar direction. Is there a possibility to safely harness electricity from charged atmosphere? That is a problem continuing straight from a genius’ work.
Brainstorming is a fantastic method to find out problems utilising the power of many. In fact, all the above ten methods, partly or fully, may come into play for the participants.
I believe all of us are somewhat familiar with this method. Those who have not done a formal, serious brainstorming yet, must have done a few brainstorming sessions of their own in school or college. Come on, do not say that you guys have never strategised together to bunk classes or other mischiefs.
There are enough guidance materials available in the search engines on how to conduct an effective brainstorming. For example, one can check this link.
12. technology forecasting
Technology forecasting is the methodology of predicting the new trends of technology, paradigm shifts etc. based on the study of various interconnected factors. Standard methods exist for technology forecasting and new methods are also coming up. Along with these methods, a successful technology forecasting may need to use the power of many and can inherently use all the above ways. More on this topic can be learnt from literature – see links 1 and 2 for examples.
I this article I just want to touch upon the promising methods in TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving), a Russian origin problem solving method. Among the many powerful TRIZ tools are “Evolution Patterns of Technical Systems” and “9 Windows“, which can predict the directions an inventor or company should take to make a paradigm shift.
12.1 TRIZ – Evolution Pattern of Technical Systems
According to TRIZ, technologies evolve in specific patterns, just like the biological evolution. It defines eight laws of technological evolution. Using these laws it is possible to predict the paradigm shift in a particular engineering system. The best part is that one need not be an expert in TRIZ to make use of these straightforward rules.
Let us consider the evolution of personal computer. It has come a long way from a room sized machine to a laptop or a tablet. Imagine a manufacturer wants to take it further to the next level. From the law of increasing ideality one can think of a computer that need not be carried separately as an unit but can be used anywhere. Do the Hollywood movies ring a bell, where all the time we see similar stuff? Although the Hollywood examples are more of the solution part and at this stage we need not venture into that, they however might help us connect with the problem immediately. Is not this an interesting problem?
Again, someone may use the law of transition from macro to micro systems and can think of developing a computer that is as good as a laptop but with more detachable pieces, collectively not taking more than the size of a diary.
12.2 TRIZ – 9 Windows
A similar scope exists with 9 windows. In this mechanism one can first predict the future super system for a particular engineering system. To understand the terminology, interested readers can follow this link. From the expected behaviour of the super system the direction towards the future engineering system and technology can then be predicted.
If we consider cooking to be an engineering system, the user naturally becomes an important super system. Now let us consider this super system to be from the urban population. Looking at the present days we can expect the urban life to demand more commuting time. That leaves little time to cook food! Considering that pattern what type of kitchen appliances would they need? Perhaps a cooker that can cook 8-10 standard items with just ingredients as inputs. Imagine while stuck in the traffic in the evening you just switch on the cooker at home using your smart phone and select the menu. By the time you are back home, food is already cooked! Is not that cool?
Tips: Anyone interested in TRIZ can begin with the links provided in our “Useful Links” page.
Finding a problem is an essential step for all those involved in study, research, problem solving, invention etc. In this article I have tried to touch upon some ways to find a problem. While there might be other methods around. the methods discussed here offer simple ways applicable almost universally.