There was a recent announcement about the launch of Waterloo’s “Problem Lab“. This seems like an interesting and very useful initiative. The goal of the Problem Lab is to help the UW community (faculty, staff and students) “identify and understand important problems”. Prof. Larry Smith, whom I have cited in other posts, is the Director and Founder. As they point out, innovation can often “fail because either the innovation is not important enough to be widely adopted, or the problem is poorly understood“.
In Engineering design, one of the first steps is supposed to be analyzing and understanding the problem (problem analysis). However, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of creating cool solutions to the apparent problem too early. Then we end up with products, innovations, and solutions that no one wants because it wasn’t really that important or worth our time and money investment. Or, we get solutions that don’t work because they didn’t actually solve the correct problem, but maybe just addressed a symptom of the fundamental problem.
In complex systems, sometimes you have to spend more time on determining the problem than the actual solution, which may turn out to be fairly simple. There are quite a variety of problem analysis methods that are available, depending on the field and context. One that often comes up in the Chemical Engineering field is Root Cause Analysis, for identifying product quality and equipment failure issues. Another one, for anticipating problems and solving them before they occur, is called HAZOP (hazard and operability analysis). We touch on these and other methods in some of our courses design case studies, and the capstone design projects, although it takes further training and experience to begin to use them effectively in industry.
The Problem Lab will have some pitch competitions, which look interesting. I’ll look forward to seeing how this evolves and what interesting things come out of it.