The Real Problem

When finding solutions, it is essential to get at the real problem, not the thing that people say is the problem.

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
Well, you might find
You get what you need

The Rolling Stones

The XY Problem

The XY Problem is known to anyone who tries to solve problems for people, even if they don’t use that name for it. It happens when people present their problem in terms of their idea about a solution rather than your the actual problem. Unfortunately, this leads to enormous amounts of wasted time and effort, both on the part of people asking for help, and on the part of those providing help.

It goes like this:

  1. Someone has a problem, X.
  2. They think that Y will help them solve their problem, X.
  3. They ask about Y.
  4. Someone helps them to do Y.
  5. It turns out that Y doesn’t solve their real problem, X.

On a good day, the person with problem X will realize that they’re solving the wrong problem and shift their focus to X. All too often, however, they either continue to believe that Y is the answer, and go back to step 2, or they pick a different Y and try that instead.

Example: The Paper Problem

It isn’t uncommon for people to talk about “the paper problem”. The thinking goes that if an organization can go digital and get rid of all the paper, the organization will be more efficient.

What happens is this:

  1. A customer is frustrated by their administrative processes.
  2. They assume that the problem is that they’re using paper (Y), rather than computers.
  3. The IT supplier, keen for business, offers to write an application for them.
  4. On a good day, the application reduces the administrative overhead, and they customer is happy.
  5. On a bad day, the underlying problems (X) with the administrative process have not been addressed.

The customer may now be in a worse position:

  • IT acts as an amplifier, making good processes better, but bad processes worse. They can now do the wrong thing quicker.
  • IT systems are more expensive to change than paper systems. The problems are now baked in.

And all too often, both customer and supplier think that the problem is better IT, when the real problem is fixing bad admin processes. Both spend time and resource on improving Y, when the real problem is X.

The Presenting Problem

A similar issue occurs when people ask about the symptoms of their problems rather than their underlying causes. The initial symptoms are sometimes called the “presenting problem”. Relieving these symptoms may make the help-seeker feel better, and where the underlying problem isn’t serious, that can be sufficient. However, if the underlying problem is more serious, then a “cure” which simply masks the underlying issue is likely to do more harm than good.

Example: The Beeping Smoke Alarm

  1. My smoke alarm keeps beeping (presenting problem)
  2. I take the battery out to prevent the beeping (relieving symptoms)
  3. I fail to put in a new battery (which would solve the underlying problem)
  4. My home, family and my life are at greater risk


There are various ways to overcome these issues:

As Someone with a Problem

  • Choose the best forum to seek solutions. In particular, recognize that some people have a vested interest in you solving the presenting problem rather than the underlying problem.
  • Treat people who are trying to help you with respect and patience. First, because it is the right thing to do. Second, because doing so means that they’re more likely to help you in return.
  • Be open to new ways of approaching your problem.
  • When explaining your problem, try to be concise, precise and informative.
  • Describe your goal, and what you’ve tried already.
  • Focus on your observations, not just your guesses.
  • Accept that a better question is progress, even if you don’t feel any closer to a solution.
  • Accept that the problem solver may perceive a deeper problem than you can see.

As a Problem Solver

  • When someone comes to you with a problem (even if that someone is yourself), begin with the assumption that there is an underlying problem that they’re not asking about.
  • Use the 5 Why’s Technique where appropriate.
  • Learn to recognize common occurrences of these problems As you gain experience in your field, you’ll find that people often ask about Y when they really want to to know about X.
  • Ask about other symptoms.
  • If you carry a hammer, beware of assuming that every problem is a nail. (If you’re in IT, for example, don’t assume that technology is the answer to everything. Both people-problems and systemic issues often masquerade as technical issues.)
  • Accept that you can’t solve everyone’s problems. Sending someone elsewhere (or even doing nothing) is better than making things worse.

Happy Workers Result in Happy Investors

A recent paper has demonstrated that companies with happy workers are worth than those with unhappy workers.
The 2.4-3.7% difference cited by the study doesn’t sound like much, but over the years that difference accumulates. If you invested £100 in a happy-worker company, you’d get between £180 and £240 more money back in 25 years time than if you’d invested in a sad-worker company. That’s about twice your original investment!
According to the original research paper, this implies:

  • Happy workers result in happy investors
  • An increased emphasis on looking after your people can increase the value of your company
  • Investors need to pay more attention to human factors rather than just just financial ones

How to Improve Service and Lower Costs

Focus on the systems that provide value

How you view a problem is the key to the way you solve it. If our focus is on anything but the systems that provide value we will be driving waste into our business.

Don’t focus on economies of scale

Standardisation isn’t always improvement

Don’t focus on tools, but on principles

Every situation is different.
At a high level, the ways that a service organisation provides value are different from a manufacturing business or an R&D department. This is why lean tools don’t translate to service organisations.
At a low level, each organisation has a different pattern of demand for its services. This leads to different problems which require different types of solutions.

Don’t focus on individual processes

Efficient processes don’t always lead to efficient systems.
Consider the value stream. Costs arise from end-to-end services, not individual transactions. Lowering individual transaction costs can increase overall transaction costs.
However, poor performance in one area has a knock-on effect in other areas.

Focus on providing better end-to-end services

  • Better service lowers costs
  • Follow the value flow, eliminate waste
  • Fragmentation of flow introduces waste (e.g. separating back-end from front-end breaks up flow)
  • Improve systems  – systems control behaviour

Create better measures

  • High scores don’t add value
  • Measures should relate to the purpose of the system from a customer POV


Improving the Information Service

A grab bag of ideas:

Focus on business value

Nothing else matters.

Provide a great interface

At these levels:

  • Technically
  • Personally

It should be:

  • Easy to access
  • Responsive
  • Reliable
  • Make people feel good

Build a solid, agile infrastructure

You’re going to pay interest on technical debt. So keep your implementation clean.
Where appropriate:

  • Simplify
  • Consolidate
  • Standardise


  • Hardware
  • Software
  • Configuration
  • Names

And remember:

  • If you’ve got one, you’ll need two.

Don’t think savings, think investment

Invest in:

  • Staff
  • Tools
  • Infrastructure

Know your assets

For each key asset:

  • Know its value to the business
    • What would you do if it wasn’t there?
  • Know what it costs
    • To buy
    • To replace
    • To maintain
    • To use
    • Of alternatives
  • Know who is responsible for it
    • Within IT
    • Within the business
    • Outside (contracts, supplier)
  • Know its limitations
    • Technical
    • Legal (licensing etc.)
  • What it depends on
    • Hardware
    • Software
    • People

Emphasize quality over quantity

  • Get it right first time
  • Do less and do it better
  • If you can do it once, you can do it twice


Providing a Better Information Service Using Antique Hardware

The Great Mouse Switch

An organisation took the following measures:

  1. It got rid of all the new-fangled optical mice, and replace them with old-fashioned mechanical ones (the ones with the little balls in them).
  2. Managers of the IT department were made personally responsible for keeping these mice gunge-free. These managers are not permitted to delegate cleaning to their staff. Instead, the managers were issued with a cleaning kit, and were responsible for mouse cleaning in person.
  3. Weekly emails were sent to staf
  4. f stating that that all mouse problems would be dealt with as a priority..




The organisation that took these measures found the following benefits:

  1. The managers found themselves spending more time with their customers than they did previously.
  2. The mice that picked up the most muck belonged to the people who used them the most: the organisation’s knowledge workers. As a result, it was the people who had most to benefit from IT who received most contact with the IT managers.
  3. Not realising they were talking to managers, the users found it easy to talk about the IT service that they received.
  4. Users were comfortable to express themselves in their own environment.
  5. User’s surroundings provided props and examples that they could use as a point of reference.
  6. The managers got to know the most common frustrations that their customers experienced with the IT service they received – both through conversation and from witnessing their users going about their day-to-day duties.
  7. Mangers noticed that the The IT managers saw impact of those frustrations first-hand – both on business productivity and on the welfare of their customers.
  8. Managers got to know more about the day-to-day operation of their customer’s business.
  9. Managers better understood how IT contributed to their customer’s business.
  10. Managers better understood the challanges faced by their own staff when they were field.
  11. Managers came back from meeting the customers with lots of small tasks for IT staff.
  12. The execution of these tasks significantly increased the confidence of customers in the IT department.
  13. IT staff intially resented the extra workload that these small tasks created.
  14. IT staff became aware that they needed to focus on providing a better quality service, resolving user issues first time where possible.
  15. IT managers focus broadened to the whole service offered by the IT department, rather than just the area for which they were personally responsible.
  16. Managers built up a picture of the most common issues faced by their customers, and to develop strategies to eliminate them.
  17. Managers were better able to prioritise, plan and strategies based on their clients real needs.
  18. The clients business was better served.
  19. As the IT service was better able to meet the real needs of the organisation, clients recognised the value that IT was adding to their business.
  20. Clients recognised the potential benefits that IT could offer to them, and were confident that the IT department would be able to deliver. They were willing to spend more money on IT, knowing that the benefits they would achieve would be outweighed by the costs.

The Mousetrap

Alright, allright: you’ve got me. This didn’t actually happen. I made it up. It is all just a silly story.
Or is it…

Getting to the Cheese

Fictional as the story is, it illustrates some important points about IT service delivery. If your organisation is anything like mine, there are some interesting comparisons to be made between this made-up company and the real one:

  • Do your IT managers talk directly to knowledge workers, or do they just speak to other managers?
  • Does the IT department prioritise the things your knowledge workers believe to be important?
  • Do IT managers know their client’s business, or just IT?
  • Is IT driven by business needs or by technology?
  • Do IT managers talk face-to-face to their customers, or do they hide away in their ‘ivory towers’?
  • Do IT managers ever see clients in their own workplace, or always meet in stuffy meeting rooms or in the IT department?
  • Do IT managers take active steps to assess their performance, or do they sit back and wait for feedback?
  • Do IT staff focus on quality of service, or do they do a hit-and-run quick-fix just to get jobs off the books?
  • Do managers understand the difficulties faced by their own staff, or do they leave that to others?
  • Is your IT department have the agility to notice and adapt to changing business requirements, or is it change direction as slowly as a super-tanker?

It our answers to these questions are not the ones that we would like, we must not get down hearted. Seeing the problem is half way to finding the solution.


Whilst I am not advocating taking a retrograde step with people’s hardware, I am challenged to look at the way IT is delivered to our customers. We need to find creative ways to engage with our knowledge workers so that they can influence the direction that our IT service takes. In doing so, we can improve the value we offer our customers, and in doing so improve our own position within the organisation.

Free John Maxwell MP3s

John Maxwell is an author and speaker and pastor who has written over 50 books, primarily on leadership.
The following websites appear to host free MP3s of his material:

You can also download MP4 videos here:

There are more videos here, some of which are for online viewing only:

If anyone has any more links, please let me know and I will add them.