Defining the Problem

Author: Joe H., Inflow Engineer

The past few weeks we’ve been talking about ways to solve problems by thinking like an engineer. There’s still much more to cover on that topic, but in this post we’ll be looking at how to create problems like an engineer, or in other words, how to properly define a problem so you get a usable solution.

Typically, when someone first identifies an issue that needs to be solved, they develop a very general problem statement (e.g., “I’m hungry”, “This graphic doesn’t look right”, etc.). This kind of statement can be solved in an almost infinite number of ways, which means that you likely won’t get the solution you were really looking for. While it might be easy to clarify your statement if you’re solving a simple problem, using generalized statements when talking about complex systems is a recipe for disaster. Let’s look at a real world example of exactly what can go wrong when you don’t clearly define the problem you’re trying to solve, and then we’ll look at how such issues can be avoided.

On July 23, 1983, a Boeing 767 glided to an emergency landing at the Gimli Industrial Park Airport after running out of fuel mid-flight. At the time, Canada was in the process of switching to the metric system, and the 767 was one of the first planes to use metric units. Due to a maintenance error, the fuel gages on the plane were disabled, requiring the flight crew to calculate the fuel levels manually using a drip-stick check. During this process, the crew used a conversion factor based on the weight of a liter of fuel in pounds, however the new equipment operated on units of mass of a liter in kilograms. In other words, the problem statement was not clearly designed and as a result, the crew got the wrong answer without realizing it. They were solving the wrong problem without even knowing it.

So, how do engineers avoid poorly worded problem statements? There’s a whole field of engineering related to creating requirements, but the basic concept is very simple. Whenever you’re creating a problem statement, determine how you’ll measure success. For example, instead of saying “I’m hungry”, a properly formed engineering requirement would be something like “I need 600 calories of food, composed of 250 calories of protein, 100 calories of fat, and 250 calories of carbohydrates. The food should be served at a temperature between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The food must be prepared using the recipes listed in The Ultimate Sandwich Cookbook.” Notice how the second statement tells us how much and what type of food is needed, and how it should be prepared. We’ve provided the metrics used to measure success as part of the problem statement.

This concept of defining metrics as part of the initial problem statement is the key to creating good engineering problems. It allows you to know exactly what you’re trying to achieve with your solution, and it ensures that you understand the problem you are trying to solve. And like the other topics we’ve covered, this concept isn’t limited to engineering, it applies to every field. If you’re assigning projects to others, and you take the time to determine what exactly you require ahead of time, you’re much more likely to get the result you want the first time. And if you’re on the other end of the spectrum, and your management has asked you to do something complex without explaining how they’ll be evaluating it, you can save yourself untold headaches by asking for details up front. It might be awkward at first, but with a little practice you’ll find that you save noticeable amounts of time and effort in the long run.

In our next post, we’ll look at how to make sure you choose the right metrics to measure your project. If you’re interested in more details on the topic, check out the Fundamentals of Systems Engineering course on MIT’s open courseware website, specifically the Session 3 lecture notes

-Joe H., Inflow Engineer

 

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