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James RobertsonBusiness Analysis Viewpoints

by James Robertson

February 2020


There are an infinite number of ways of looking at any system. This article examines useful viewpoints that help Business Analysts to understand the real problem and come up with innovative ideas.

What is My Starting Point?

Suppose you are working on a project for your local council to improve the way that they clear the leaves from the street in autumn. They say they want to use more modern leaf blowing machines instead of the brooms that they currently use. Where do you start? It all depends on what you already know about this and similar systems. Your client, the local council, is taking a viewpoint that focuses on a solution. But they haven’t told you what the problem is. They are asking you for “more modern leaf blowing machines” but why do they want this? What do they expect this solution will do for them? If you can discover the answer to this question you are well on the way to discovering the real problem. Yes, maybe the solution they are asking for is the best one – but after many years of similar experiences, I am willing to bet it is not. And once you discover the real problem then other, usually better, solutions will reveal themselves. An effective way to discover the real problem is to start with the solution that the client has asked you for and use it as the basis for discovering the real problem.

Start by doing a rough sketch (something like Figure 1) to represent the solution the client has asked for. Draw it with the client and talk your way through it using the client’s terminology. If you don’t feel confident of your drawing skills just annotate the picture with the client’s words. “Each leaf sweeper has a daily schedule of where they should work that day. I want them to use new, up to date, blowing machines to blow the leaves into piles. Then they will probably need to sweep the leaves into tidy piles. When they have enough piles of leaves, they will phone head office and tell them that the leaves are ready to be picked up by the trucks. Then the truck will arrive, put the leaves into bags, loads them into the truck and take the bags to the Fertiliser manufacturer.”

Once you have established the lines of communication then you can ask some questions to probe more deeply.

Analyst: “Why do you want them to use a new type of blowing machines?”

Client: “Other councils use them and we want to be up to date. And we want to speed up the time it takes to make piles of leaves ready for the drivers to pick them up”

Analyst: “Why do we want to be faster?”

Client: “We don’t want leaf pick up to be delayed. The weather is unpredictable and if it rains and is windy, the leaves make the pavements very slippery and cause pedestrians to fall – we’ve had a lot of accidents.”

Analyst: “So we need to do whatever we can to speed up the removal of leaves from the footpaths and avoid accidents.”

Client: “That’s what we need to do.”

By talking to the Client in terms of what he has asked for you start to have a better understanding of what he really needs.