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Vol. 23, No. 8, August 2014, pp. 14621479 DOI 10.1111/poms.

ISSN 1059-1478|EISSN 1937-5956|14|2308|1462 2014 Production and Operations Management Society

Defining Problems Fast and Slow: The U-shaped Effect

of Problem Definition Time on Project Duration
Adrian S. Choo
J. Mack Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University, 35 Broad Street NW, Atlanta, Georgia 30303, USA, achoo@gsu.edu

his study examines how time spent in problem definition affects problem solving in projects such as Six Sigma
T projects. Our hypotheses are tested using data collected from 1558 Six Sigma projects in a company. The results show
evidence of a U-shaped relationship between the amount of time spent in the Define phase and project duration. This
finding suggests that spending too little time on problem definition potentially causes poor problem formulation, which
leads to deficient problem solving and lengthens overall project time. On the other hand, too much time spent on problem
definition can lead to unneeded delays in project completion due to diminishing returns on problem definition efforts.
Furthermore, the optimal balance between spending too little and too much time depends on prior project experience and
project complexity. Prior project experience reduced project completion time and weakened the U-shaped effect.
Conversely, complex projects took longer and appeared to show some evidence of a stronger U-shaped effect; this sug-
gests balancing the time spent in the Define phase was more challenging for complex projects. Our study also underscores
the importance of managing project duration, as projects that were completed faster tended to be associated with higher
project savings.

Key words: group problem solving; problem definition; prior project experience; project complexity; Six Sigma projects
History: Received: September 2011; Accepted: January 2014 by Stylianos Kavadias, after 3 revisions.

One does not begin with answers. One begins According to information processing theory, prob-
by asking, What are our questions? lem solving can be viewed as an organized search
Peter Drucker process. A search is instigated by a problem and is
directed toward finding a solution to that problem
(Cyert and March 1963, p. 121). A problem that is well
defined enables a faster solution search that makes
1. Introduction probable the discovery of one of the solutions early in
Often, people begin searching for solutions without the process (Newell et al. 1958, p. 161). Early knowl-
sufficiently defining their problems. This tendency edge of the problems scope facilitates the later solu-
occurs not only in individuals but also in teams tion search (Hunt 1994, p. 218, Polya 1945). While the
(Hackman 2011, Leonard and Swap 1999, Spradlin early problem formulation stage is critical to later
2012). As a result of inadequate problem definitions, problem solving, the existing literature generally
projects miss important opportunities, waste limited focuses on later problem-solving stages about solu-
resources, and take longer than necessary (Spradlin tion search and contains little empirical study of the
2012). When a team works on a project, differences earlier problem definition phase (Baer et al. 2013,
among team members understandings and defini- Cross and Sproull 2004, Pretz et al. 2003, Simon 1991).
tions of the focal problem also contribute to inade- Given that project work is problem solving by nature,
quately defining the problem (Cronin and Weingart we examine whether project teams that spend time
2007). Yet, group efforts to represent and define a defining their problems more thoroughly will com-
problem have the potential to develop better knowl- plete projects faster, or even slower, than those that
edge via integrating multiple perspectives of team spend little time on problem definition (cf. Nickerson
members (Dahlin et al. 2005) and building a com- and Zenger 2004).
mon understanding of the problem (Mesmer-Mag- The amount of time needed to complete a project is
nus and DeChurch 2009). Taking the time to an important measure of project performance
thoroughly define a problem could facilitate the (Houston 2011). The product development literature
teams solution search and information processing suggests that the time spent completing a project is a
in group problem solving (Baer et al. 2013, Reiter- critical project performance measure because faster
Palmon et al. 1997). development of new products can build a firms
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow
Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society 1463

competitive advantage through responding better to little about the potential negative impact of under-
market trends, reducing development costs, and emphasizing problem definition in group problem
improving product quality (Brown and Eisenhardt solving (Pretz et al. 2003). In an in-depth case study
1995, Chen et al. 2010, Kessler and Chakrabarti 1996). about quality improvement at a Ford plant, MacDuffie
Consequently, a number of studies have investigated (1997, p. 489) found workers typically focused on
factors that potentially decrease the development choosing a solution and allocated little effort to prob-
time of product development projects (e.g., Eisen- lem definition to quickly finish their work because
hardt and Tabrizi 1995, Griffin 1997, Ittner and they felt that they already understood the problem.
Larcker 1997, Swink 2002, Tatikonda and Montoya- On the other hand, skimping on problem definition
Weiss 2001). in a quality improvement project may result in the
However, factors that impact the project duration project team missing valuable process discoveries and
of quality improvement projects remain largely hampering project completion (Singh and Khanduja
unexamined. Although some researchers claim that 2012). Taken together, there is a lack of research about
the Six Sigma method creates a sense of urgency by whether project teams that spend time defining their
focusing on rapid project completion (Antony et al. problems will complete projects more quickly or
2011, Snee 2004, 2007), little research empirically slowly. Our study adds to the research by showing
examines how a quality improvement methodology, that there is a need to balance between spending
such as Six Sigma, and other project-related factors too little and too much time on problem definition.
can affect project duration. As an organization is Second, our study extends beyond the question about
limited by the amount of time, funds and people, whether the balance matters by examining two poten-
it would benefit from executing quality improve- tial levers of balancing: prior project experience and
ment projects in a shorter amount of time by using project complexity. Our results show some evidence
fewer resources and responding speedily to custom- that prior project experience negatively moderates
ers needs and technology changes (Foster and but project complexity positively moderates the
Adam 1996, Juran 1989, Reed et al. 1996). Thus, the U-shaped relationship between problem definition
capability to solve problems quickly via a quality time and project duration. Third, although many
improvement initiative such as Six Sigma can studies have investigated the factors affecting project
build a more sustainable quality advantage for an duration in new product development projects (e.g.,
organization. Atuahene-Gima 2003, Ittner and Larcker 1997, Swink
Accordingly, we choose to examine the relationship 2002, Tatikonda and Montoya-Weiss 2001), the factors
between problem definition and project duration in influencing project duration in quality improvement
the context of Six Sigma. The Six Sigma context also projects have received little attention. This is surpris-
provides reliable project documentations that enable ing given that quality improvement activities comple-
us to more rigorously test our hypotheses. In particu- ment and support new product developments (Levin
lar, Six Sigma is a project-based quality initiative that 2000, MacDuffie 1997). Thus, our investigation in the
is widely implemented among manufacturing and quality improvement context adds to the existing
service firms (Nair et al. 2011, Pyzdek and Keller literature about problem solving, project management,
2010, Schroeder et al. 2008). Six Sigma projects use and quality practices (e.g., Choo 2011, Choo et al.
a systematic problem-solving method, commonly 2007a, Nair et al. 2011, Naveh and Erez 2004, Staats
referred to as DMAIC, which stands for Define, et al. 2011).
Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. The meth- From a managerial standpoint, management
odology also includes a variety of analysis tools for should encourage project teams to spend sufficient
problem solving in project work. At the organiza- time defining problems and not punish project
tional level, the Six Sigma initiative involves elements teams for taking too much time before beginning the
such as leadership and customer focus (Schroeder solution search (Spradlin 2012). When managing a
et al. 2008, Zu et al. 2008), but problem solving is its balanced approach to time spent on problem defini-
central function (Choo et al. 2007b, Schroeder et al. tion by avoiding under- and over-analysis (Langley
2008). Our findings, therefore, are generalizable to 1995), a newly trained Black Belt (a Six Sigma
other settings that involve problem solving in doing project leader) should be encouraged to continue
projects, albeit our research context focuses only on learning by doing less complex projects rather than
Six Sigma projects. taking on more complex projects. Experienced Black
Our investigation in the context of quality improve- Belts should lead more complex projects and
ment projects advances the understanding of problem become a resource for mentoring inexperienced
definition and project duration in three ways. First, Black Belts and team members. The remaining
the tendency to focus on the solution search is sections are organized as follows: section 2 develops
common in human problem solving; but, we know the hypotheses, section 3 describes the data and the
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methodology, section 4 presents the results, section In a project, team members often have inconsisten-
5 discusses the findings, and section 6 provides the cies among their definitions of the teams problem.
conclusions. Such inconsistencies hamper the integration of indi-
vidual members knowledge necessary for problem
2. Impact of Problem Definition on solving, increase conflicts among team members, and
prolong project duration (Cronin and Weingart 2007).
Project Duration On the other hand, differences in problem definitions
Problem solving begins with a problem, which can be can be effectively considered when team members
defined as a deviation from a desired set of specific spend time together to discuss, interact, reflect, and
or a range of acceptable conditions resulting in a observe (Seufert et al. 1999). Teams that spend time
symptom or a web of symptoms recognized as together tend to share information more readily, par-
needing to be addressed (Baer et al. 2013, p. 199). A ticularly valuable information that is not common
problem then enables a search for solutions, which knowledge among team members (Stasser and Titus
together constitute a basic problem-solving process 1985). Although efforts to appropriately define a
(Nelson 1982) or a problemistic search (Cyert and problem by integrating team members knowledge
March 1963, pp. 120121). According to the infor- may require more time initially, it can speed up the
mation processing theory, the process of problem overall problem resolution (MacDuffie 1997, p. 498).
solving is organizable because of similarities in pro- Careful planning and definition of a projects focal
cesses of human problem solving (Newell et al. 1958, problem help a team to avoid mistakes and to stream-
p. 152). An organizable problem-solving process can line activities by eliminating unnecessary tasks and
possibly be made faster by using appropriate search steps. A well-defined problem also enables the team
strategies (Muth 1986, p. 961), which is applicable to to reduce delays and reworks, to share required
quality improvement (MacDuffie 1997) and R&D resources more swiftly, and to facilitate smoother
(Oraiopoulos and Kavadias 2014). In particular, the interactions and coordination within and outside
formulation of a problem determines how the solu- the team (Houston 2011, Kerzner 2010, Mepyans-
tion search is organized (MacDuffie 1997, Nickerson Robinson 2011).
and Zenger 2004) and a well-defined problem can While spending time to define a problem can
facilitate the solution search (Hunt 1994, p. 218, Polya shorten the overall project duration, the beneficial
1945). effect diminishes at a certain point, after which spend-
The influence of problem definition on the solution ing more time may actually delay the project. Time is
search is most pronounced when the problem is a scarce resource and when too much time is spent in
poorly defined (Lesgold 1988). According to Dillon any given phase, the overall time required to
(1982), problems can be classified into three types: (1) complete a project is lengthened (Kerzner 2010). In
the presented problem, in which the problem and its addition, when too much time is devoted to early
salient characteristics are defined, (2) the discovered problem definition activities, team members can be
problem, in which the problem derives from the infor- overwhelmed with unnecessary information1, which
mation presented, and (3) the created problem, in causes obfuscation of relevant information (Schneider
which the information requires for defining the prob- 1987). Despite that spending time to collect more data
lem does not exist. The second and the third types, and information improve decision making, too much
discovered and created problems, are ill-defined. The data and information at the problem definition stage2
ability to properly define such problems affects prob- can result in information overload. According to the
lem-solving performance (Mumford et al. 1994). A information processing literature, the information
classic study by Lyles and Mitroff (1980) found that load should match the teams information processing
90% of problems facing managers were ill-defined, capacity so that it can be effectively and efficiently
which appears to hold true for todays contexts (Baer processed (Eppler and Mengis 2004, Hemp 2009,
et al. 2013). Despite the importance of problem defini- OReilly 1980). When the information load exceeds
tion for ill-defined problems, research in this area what a team can process, the team members ability to
remains scant. As Pretz et al. (2003, p. 9) lamented: set priorities will be hampered as a result of confusion
indeed, the emphasis in research has been on the lat- (Jacoby 1984), which in turn causes sub-optimal deci-
ter rather than the earlier phases of problem solving. sion processes (Malhotra 1982) and lengthens the time
Yet these earlier phases are critical to accurate and needed to reach a decision (Chervany and Dickson
faster problem solving, especially in the solution of 1974).
ill-defined problems. More research on problem Furthermore, at the early phase of a project, it is
formulation is needed, particularly on how problem almost impossible for team members to know and
definition affects problem solving in projects (cf. gather all of the necessary information for making
Spradlin 2012). rational decisions. The literature on bounded
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow
Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society 1465

rationality shows that people are limited by their phase on project duration will exhibit a U-shaped
knowledge and cognitive capacities in decision mak- relationship.
ing (Simon 1955, 1982). To fully understand a problem
H1. The time spent in the Define phase of a Six
requires knowledge of all conceivable solutions ahead
Sigma project has a U-shaped relationship with
of time, which is impossible for an ill-structured or
project duration.
wicked problem (Rittel and Webber 1973). Certain
types of problem-related and solution-related infor-
mation can only be attained in later phases of problem
2.1. Direct and Moderating Effects of Project
solving through experiential learning (von Hippel
and Tyre 1995). Early on, spending more time does
Information processing among individuals varies by
not continue to yield a correspondingly better
task complexity (Newell and Simon 1972, Payne
problem definition because it generates redundant
1976). According to the perspective of complexity as
information, which also can hamper creativity
objective task characteristics (Campbell 1988), a com-
(Perry-Smith 2006). Therefore, we argue that spend-
plex task is characterized by a high number of task
ing time in the problem definition stage decreases
components and numerous interdependencies among
project duration only to a certain point, beyond
task components (Campbell 1988, Payne 1976, Wood
which spending more time slows down project
1986). Analogously, a complex system is made up of
a large number of parts that have many interactions
As previously stated, Six Sigma projects use a prob-
(Simon 1996, pp. 183184). Following this logic, we
lem-solving methodology called DMAIC that orga-
use two variables for measuring project complexity.
nizes a projects problem-solving process into five
The first is the number of targeted objectives in a pro-
phases known as Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve,
ject. The goal setting literature suggests that a higher
and Control (Pyzdek and Keller 2010). In particular,
number of goals (in this case, project objectives)
the Define phase involves describing a problem and
implies a higher level of task complexity and diffi-
setting the project scope. During the Define phase, a
culty (Locke and Latham 1990). The second project
team gathers what is known about the problem and
measure is a dummy variable that indicates whether
defines the projects targeted processes and objectives.
a given project involves multiple products or services
The Measure phase pertains to the quantification of
(i.e., a complex project) or a single specific product or
the problem. The team collects data by making deci-
service (i.e., a less complex project). A project that
sions on what to measure and how to measure based
spans multiple product lines is more complex because
on how team members understood and defined the
it necessitates more coordination and interdependen-
problem. The Measure phase is followed by the Ana-
cies among requisite tasks (Shenhar 2001, Shenhar
lyze phase, during which the team uses the collected
and Dvir 2007).
data to identify the sources of variation and to deter-
A complex project should take more time to com-
mine the root causes of the defects driven by the focal
plete. The new product development literature shows
problem. In the Improve phase, the team brainstorms
that project complexity generally increases project
ideas for potential solutions and implements a solu-
completion time (Griffin 1997, Hansen 1999, Thomke
tion for the defined problem of the project. Finally,
and Reinertsen 2012); however, little empirical
the Control phase focuses on monitoring the imple-
research investigates this potential effect in the con-
mented solution to ensure the sustainability of the
text of quality improvement projects (Linderman
improvement. These descriptions of phases align with
et al. 2003, Nair et al. 2011). More complex quality
the definition of DMAIC from American Society for
improvement projects are characterized by project
Quality website (retrieved on April 3, 2013 from
scopes that involve larger amount of data and analy-
ses (Nair et al. 2011, p. 533), which likely require a
longer project time. Furthermore, complex quality
Despite variations in practice, the initial Define
improvement problems also are harder to define and
phase typically involves problem definition and the
tend to require extensive coordination among various
later phases encompass the search for and implemen-
functions and departments (MacDuffie 1997). There-
tation of a solution (Pyzdek 2003, Pyzdek and Keller
fore, a complex Six Sigma project should take longer
2010, Singh and Khanduja 2012). Spending an appro-
to complete due to the challenging task requirements
priate amount time in the Define phase allows team
that result from multiple project goals and the need
members to uncover and share relevant knowledge
for more extensive coordination spanning multiple
that is crucial to problem formulation and the
product or service lines.
subsequent phases (Anand et al. 2010, Singh and
Khanduja 2012). In particular, we expect that the H2. Project complexity is positively associated
effect of the time spent during the problem definition with (lengthens) project duration.
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In addition, project complexity likely moderates the cumulative experience of quality improvement
effect of problem definition effort. Prior research sug- projects that generated both know-how and know-
gests that problem understanding and problem for- why facilitated learning curve rates at a tyre cord
mulation play a bigger role in solving complex manufacturing plant, and such experience could be
problems compared to solving less complex problems transferred to other parts of the factory. Prior project
(Bystrom and J arvelin 1995). An experiment study experience facilitates new learning because team
about group problem solving found that group mem- members can build on what they already know
bers spent more time and engaged in higher quality (Cohen and Levinthal 1990). Knowledge acquired
up-front planning when working on complex tasks from earlier projects can be reused and recombined to
than they did when working on simple tasks (Wein- solve similar or related problems at a later time,
gart 1992). For a complex project, team members which is evident in group problem solving (Schilling
likely derive greater benefits from spending time at et al. 2003), operational teams (Zellmer-Bruhn 2003),
up-front planning and problem definition. A complex and franchise business units (Darr et al. 1995).
problem requires more attention and information pro- In this study, we use two variables to measure prior
cessing (Fernandes and Simon 1999). Consequentially, project experience: the cumulative number of prior
a clearer understanding of the focal problem in the projects completed by the Black Belt (a Six Sigma
early phase of a complex project would enable team team leader) of a given project and the cumulative
members to develop better strategies for solution number of prior completed projects in the organiza-
search and to coordinate tasks more smoothly, and tion antecedent to the start of the project. As a Black
subsequently lead to a faster completion of the Belt gains experience by successfully finishing pro-
complex project. Project complexity should interact jects, over time he or she can become more proficient
with problem definition and strengthen the effect of at applying the Six Sigma method to projects and at
problem definition time on project duration. managing Six Sigma teams. Recent research shows
If time spent in the problem definition stage Black Belt experience played a major role in facilitat-
decreases project duration more greatly for a complex ing project success (Easton and Rosenzweig 2012).
project, then spending too much time on problem Experience gained from doing Six Sigma projects also
definition would also result in greater delays in the can be transferred across teams as more projects are
project. This is because an early delay in a complex completed in an organization (Schroeder et al. 2008).
project is harder to resolve in later phases due to the Thus, we hypothesize that the experience gained from
higher level of uncertainty that is typically associated doing prior Six Sigma projects will facilitate current
with a complex project (Shenhar 2001). Therefore, project completion.
project complexity should interact with problem
H4. Prior project experience is negatively associ-
definition in a way that increases the upward curvi-
ated with (shortens) project duration.
linearity of the problem definition effect. That is, pro-
ject complexity strengthens the U-shaped effect of
problem definition time on project duration, making Accumulation of project experience can originate
the trade-off between spending too little and too from two components. The firstcontent knowledge
much time on problem definition more challenging to can transfer from one problem to the same or a
manage. related problem. For instance, technical knowledge
learned from one Six Sigma project can transfer to
H3. Project complexity positively moderates the
another project via personnel movement. The second
U-shaped relationship between the time spent in
component of project experience is learning to learn
the Define phase and project duration.
(Ellis 1965, p. 32), which results from the experience
gained by teams engaging in more effective problem
solving. As prior project experience increases, a Six
2.2. Direct and Moderating Effects of Prior Project Sigma teams ability to accomplish effective problem
Experience solving also increases. While both types of experience
Experience is fundamental to learning and acquisition can lead to faster problem solving in projects (as
of knowledge (Argote et al. 2003, Cohen and Levin- already hypothesized), they also can weaken the
thal 1990, Cyert and March 1963, Huber 1991). In pro- impact of problem definition on project duration. A
duction tasks, workers who repeatedly do the same team with prior project experience may reason and
task over time will gain experience, which results in work more intuitively and insightfully, and conse-
an exponential decrease in task completion time, quently the team may be less affected by the relation-
defects, and costs (Levy 1965, Wright 1936). The learn- ship between spending time in the problem definition
ing curve effect is also applicable to quality improve- phase and project duration. Because people tend to
ment (Fine 1986). Lapre et al. (2000) found rely on their experience to do work (Argote et al.
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow
Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society 1467

2003), increased project experience could play a big- selected projects were related to improving the exist-
ger part in problem solving and weaken the need to ing performance (e.g., costs, quality, and yield) of
be constrained by the amount of time spent in the products and processes. Our sample only includes
problem definition stage. For instance, a high level of successfully completed projects. About 3% of Six
professional experience was found to substitute the Sigma projects in the company were canceled due to
need for the management to provide task-related negative results and were excluded from our sample
information for doing work (Kerr and Slocum 1981). because of incomplete time data. While the company
Workers prefer to rely on their experience for creative also performed R&D work, those projects were
problem solving rather than be constrained by struc- excluded from our sample. The company completed
ture and time milestones (Amabile 1997). On the other an average of 400 quality improvement projects annu-
hand, a Six Sigma team that lacks prior project experi- ally during the period of data collection. However,
ence may find spending time at the Define phase use- due to missing values, we excluded 70 of these pro-
ful in effectively defining the projects focal problem jects and were left with a sample of 1558 projects for
(Linderman et al. 2004, Singh and Khanduja 2012). analysis. To check for a potential sample bias between
Altogether, prior project experience can substitute for the remaining sample and the 70 dropped projects,
the effect of time spent on problem definition, sug- we computed difference tests for two project variables
gesting an antagonistic interaction effect between (i.e., those without missing values) and found no
prior project experience and problem definition time. statistical difference between the two samples.
Increased prior project experience should weaken the
effect of problem definition time on project duration. 3.1. Main Variables
A project team with prior project experience is also Project duration is measured by the number of days
more capable of mitigating project delays (Easton and taken to complete a project. We computed this num-
Rosenzweig 2012), which suggests that prior project ber based on the start and end dates of a project. The
experience helps to reduce the risk of slowing down average project duration is 142 days with a standard
project completion when too much time is spent in deviation of 89 days. This average is within the range
the problem definition stage. That is, prior project of the average Six Sigma project duration of 120
experience interacts with problem definition to 180 days in General Electric but shorter than the
reduce the upward curvilinearity of the problem defi- average of 240 days in Ford Motor Company
nition effect. Overall, a project team with prior project (Thompson 2007, p. 23). Since project duration might
experience should more easily discern and manage vary by business division due to the nature of
the trade-off between spending too little and too projects, we standardized project durations by their
much time on problem definition. Thus, prior project corresponding business divisions. Standardization of
experience likely weakens the U-shaped effect of project duration has been done in prior studies (refer
problem definition time on project duration. Eisenhardt and Tabrizi 1995, Terwiesch and Loch
H5. Prior project experience negatively moder- 1999). To standardize project duration, we subtracted
ates the U-shaped relationship between the time the number of days taken by a project from the aver-
spent in the Define phase and project duration. age project duration of its corresponding business
division; then, we divided the difference by the
average project duration of the respective business
3. Data and Methodology division. Our sample includes 10 business divisions,
Our research site, Company A, is a global computer which ranged from a minimum of five projects in one
manufacturing firm headquartered in the United division to a maximum of 731 projects in another. The
States. Company A has annual sales of over six billion average project duration for a business division ran-
dollars and started its Six Sigma program in 1998. The ged from 108 to 275 days. So, our dependent variable
Six Sigma initiative was first implemented in sites in is Standardized Project Duration.
the United States before being extended to sites in The main independent variable, Define Intensity, is
other countries. calculated by taking the number of days taken by the
Company A has documented and monitored its Six Define phase of a project and divided by the total
Sigma projects since the inception of the program. We number of days taken by the entire project. This mea-
collected project data for completed projects begin- sure reflects the intensity of effort for the early stage
ning with their first project in 1998 until early 2002. in a project and follows the same measurement
After combining several databases of project informa- approach reported in prior studies (Eisenhardt and
tion from the companys IT system, our data consisted Tabrizi 1995, Terwiesch and Loch 1999). The Define
of 1628 quality improvement projects that focused on phase is the first step in the Six Sigma methodology
problems related to their products and processes. All and should capture most problem definition activities
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in a project (Pyzdek and Keller 2010, Singh and several databases. The first control variable is Techni-
Khanduja 2012). cal, for which 0 represents non-technical projects and
We used two variables to measure project complex- 1, technical projects. We included this variable
ity. The first variable, Num_Objectives, is the number because the technical content of a project can influ-
of targeted objectives in a project. In Company As ence the projects duration (Clark 1989, Gaimon 2008).
database, every Six Sigma project was classified by Of the 1558 projects, 1358 projects are based on techni-
whether it impacted each of the companys seven com- cal problems such as manufacturing technology and
mon objectives, which are as follows: improving time testing procedures, while the other 200 projects are
to market, becoming a market leader, improving non-technical in nature and focus on issues such as
manufacturing, improving supply chain, improving improving a human resource policy. We also
products, improving customer relations, and improv- included a variable called Major, with 3 for high-pri-
ing employee relations. As we have discussed previ- ority projects, 2 for medium-priority projects, and 1
ously, more complex projects should have more for low-priority projects. The priority classifications
objectives, which is consistent with task complexity were provided by the company. There are 264 high-
and the goal theory literature (Locke and Latham priority projects, 1276 medium-priority projects, and
1990, Wood et al. 1987). So, we collected the project 18 low-priority projects. High-priority projects receive
data from the companys database and counted the more attention and resources, which may affect the
number of objectives for each project. Due to skew- motivation and the pace of completing the project
ness, we computed the natural log of the resulting (Shenhar et al. 2005, Verma and Sinha 2002). The
variable for our regression analysis. The second vari- third control variable is Hard. For this variable, 0
able is a dummy variable, Complex01. Here, the num- represents a project consisting of soft benefits and
ber 1 represents a complex project involving multiple savings such as improved strategic customer relations
products or services and the number 0 represents a and cost avoidance, while 1 represents hard project
less complex project involving only a single specific benefits that directly impact financial measures. In Six
product or service. We coded the dummy variable Sigma projects, soft savings may be quantifiable but
based on the descriptions of projects, which were pro- do not directly affect the companys financial state-
vided by the company. In our regression analysis, ments (Breyfogle 1999). Project teams with targeted
both variables are used to test the direct and moderat- hard savings are likely to be more motivated to com-
ing effects of project complexity. plete their tasks quickly (Latham and Seijts 1999)
We also used two variables to measure prior project because organizations tend to emphasize financial
experience. The first variable, BB_experience, is the savings more than non-financial measures (Kaplan
cumulative number of prior projects performed by and Norton 1992). Our data include 214 projects that
the Black Belt of a given project. A Black Belt, who is are classified as soft (i.e., Hard = 0) and 1344 pro-
the team leader of a Six Sigma project, plays an impor- jects as hard (i.e., Hard = 1). Finally, we control for
tant role in facilitating problem solving during the potential variations due to business cycle effects using
project because of his or her rigorous training in the quarter dummy variables, which represent every
Six Sigma method and tools (Easton and Rosenzweig quarter beginning with the third quarter of 1998 till
2012). The greater the number of projects completed the first quarter of 2002 (a total 15 quarters).
by a Black Belt, the more problem-solving experience
the Black Belt should bring to a given project. The sec- 3.3. Analysis Method
ond variable, Org_experience, indicates the cumulative Our regression analysis estimates the following
number of projects completed by the company prior model for testing the main effects:
to the start of a given project. As we have previously
Standardized Project Durationj
discussed, prior project experience accumulates as
more projects are completed in an organization (Argote b0 b1 Define Intensityj b2 Define Intensityj 2
1999, Schroeder et al. 2008). Following the learning b3 LnNum Objectivesj b4 Complex01j
curve literature, which shows that gains in experience
b5 LnBB experiencej b6 LnOrg experiencej
exhibit a logarithmic form (e.g., Argote et al. 1990,
Baum and Dahlin 2007, Lapre and Tsikriktsis 2006), b7 Technicalj b8 Majorj b9 Hardj
we computed the natural log of both variables for b10 Quarter Dummiesj j
later analyses.
where j represents a particular Six Sigma project.
3.2. Control Variables According to Cohen et al. (2003, p. 293), testing a
Our analysis includes several control variables. All curvilinear by linear interaction requires centering
data are provided by the company and we extracted the associated variables and entering two interac-
the information through coding and combining tion terms. For instance, to test the moderation of
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow
Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society 1469

Ln(Num_Objectivesj) on the effect of (Define Inten- (Evans 1999, Hair et al. 1998). Nonetheless, we per-
sityj)2, we needed to enter both Define Inten- formed an additional analysis, robust regression, to
sityj 9 Ln(Num_Objectivesj) and (Define Intensityj)2 9 further account for potential outliers. This analysis
Ln(Num_Objectivesj) in a regression model. See the technique reduces the effects of potential outliers
model below: (Berk 1990). We utilized the command rreg from Stata
12.1 to generate the results of the robust regression.
Standardized Project Durationj The rreg procedure first fits an OLS model, then calcu-
b0 b1 Define Intensityj b2 Define Intensityj 2 lates Cooks D influence statistic and excludes any
observation with D > 1, and finally performs a gener-
b3 LnNum Objectivesj b4 Complex01j
alized least squares using residual-derived weights
b5 LnBB experiencej b6 LnOrg experiencej (Huber weights and biweight).
b7 Technicalj b8 Majorj b9 Hardj
b10 Quarter Dummiesj b11 Define Intensityj 4. Results
 LnNum Objectivesj b12 DefineIntensityj 2 Table 2 shows the analysis models that are analyzed
 LnNum Objectivesj j using OLS regression with HW robust standard
errors, and Table 3 shows the same models analyzed
Similarly, we used the same analytical approach for using the robust regression technique. Our results
testing the moderation effects of Complex01j, Ln begin with the base model that contains the control
(BB_experiencej) and Ln(Org_experiencej). variables (model 1), follow by models that add the
We summarize the descriptive statistics in Table 1. main effect variables (models 25), and finally models
Regression diagnostics showed no collinearity issue that further include the interaction variables (models
with maximum VIF = 1.70. The residual vs. fitted plot 710). The main results from the robust regression
indicated some heteroskedasticity in the data, which corroborate those from the OLS with HW robust
we remedied by reporting our ordinary least squares standard errors. The general consistency between the
(OLS) models with HuberWhite (HW) robust stan- results of these two approaches further demonstrates
dard errors that are robust to heteroskedasticity that our findings are not hampered by potential out-
(White 1980). We also examined the plot of standard- liers and heteroskedasticity in the data.
ized residuals and while it appeared to be normally For control variables, the coefficients of Hard are
distributed, about 1% of our data were outside 3, negative and significant in most models from Table 2
which indicated potential outliers. Close examination and all models from Table 3. These findings suggest
of the data showed that the few outliers were not data that projects with quantifiable financial benefits are
errors and that the 1% potential outliers was reason- correlated with shorter project duration. Next, the
able in a large dataset due to population variability coefficients of Technical are not significant in all mod-

Table 1 Descriptive Statistics and Bivariate Correlations (n = 1558 Projects)

Variable (SD) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Standardized project duration 0.003 1.00
Define Intensity 0.112 0.076 1.00
Ln(Num_Objectives) 0.079 0.087 0.014 1.00
Complex01 0.283 0.051 0.014 0.040 1.00
Ln(BB_experience) 1.171 0.185 0.009 0.054 0.074 1.00
Ln(Org_experience) 5.801 0.208 0.043 0.016 0.068 0.503 1.00
Technical 0.871 0.027 0.037 0.055 0.107 0.038 0.039 1.00
Major 2.158 0.001 0.031 0.036 0.067 0.034 0.062 0.070 1.00
Hard 0.862 0.045 0.013 0.124 0.083 0.031 0.112 0.131 0.041 1.00

Correlations greater than |0.051| are significant at p < 0.05 (two-tailed tests).
Table 2 Ordinary Least Squares Regression Analysis with HuberWhite SE (n = 1558)

Dependent variable: standardized project duration

Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 Model 5 Model 6 Model 7 Model 8 Model 9 Model 10
Define Intensity 0.355** 1.310*** 1.304*** 1.288*** 1.289*** 1.260*** 1.301*** 1.321*** 1.302***
(0.171) (0.199) (0.197) (0.196) (0.194) (0.231) (0.197) (0.197) (0.195)
(Define Intensity)2 (H1) 4.981*** 5.026*** 4.963*** 5.126*** 4.043*** 4.948*** 5.398*** 5.317***
(1.03) (1.01) (1.00) (0.945) (1.12) (0.977) (0.977) (0.883)
Ln(Num_Objectives) (H2) 0.200*** 0.186*** 0.098* 0.184*** 0.181*** 0.175*** 0.120**
(0.053) (0.053) (0.058) (0.058) (0.051) (0.049) (0.051)
Complex01 (H2) 0.065** 0.071** 0.065** 0.037 0.070** 0.069** 0.024
(0.029) (0.029) (0.028) (0.033) (0.029) (0.028) (0.032)
Ln(BB_experience) (H4) 0.064*** 0.062*** 0.065*** 0.038* 0.063*** 0.050***
(0.016) (0.016) (0.016) (0.020) (0.016) (0.018)
Ln(Org_experience) (H4) 0.193** 0.188** 0.189** 0.208** 0.209*** 0.206***
(0.081) (0.081) (0.082) (0.082) (0.079) (0.078)
Define Intensity 9 Ln(Num_Objectives) 0.643 0.423
(0.801) (0.767)
(Define Intensity)2 9 Ln(Num_Objectives)(H3) 8.825 5.059
(5.48) (3.84)
Define Intensity 9 Complex01 0.034 0.191
(0.444) (0.445)
(Define Intensity)2 9 Complex01 (H3) 3.035 3.833**
(2.23) (1.87)
Define Intensity 9 Ln(BB_experience) 0.274 0.097
(0.241) (0.261)
(Define Intensity)2 9 Ln(BB_experience) (H5) 2.348* 1.179
(1.23) (0.988)
Define Intensity 9 Ln(Org_experience) 0.489** 0.452**
(0.241) (0.225)
(Define intensity)2 9 Ln(Org_experience) (H5) 3.895*** 3.289***
(1.32) (0.897)
Technical 0.037 0.041 0.042 0.027 0.016 0.016 0.019 0.018 0.015 0.019
(0.048) (0.048) (0.047) (0.048) (0.048) (0.048) (0.048) (0.048) (0.048) (0.048)
Major 0.026 0.023 0.022 0.023 0.018 0.025 0.019 0.019 0.015 0.021
(0.032) (0.032) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031)
Hard 0.100** 0.100** 0.092** 0.065 0.063 0.071* 0.060 0.067 0.070* 0.072*
(0.043) (0.042) (0.042) (0.041) (0.041) (0.041) (0.041) (0.041) (0.040) (0.041)
Quarter Dummies Included Included Included Included Included Included Included Included Included Included
Intercept 0.259*** 0.249** 0.601*** 0.625*** 0.428*** 0.415*** 0.423*** 0.403*** 0.361*** 0.335***
(0.096) (0.096) (0.096) (0.097) (0.109) (0.110) (0.109) (0.109) (0.110) (0.108)
R2 0.073 0.078 0.105 0.118 0.128 0.135 0.132 0.132 0.138 0.148
Adjusted R2 0.063 0.068 0.094 0.106 0.115 0.121 0.118 0.118 0.124 0.131
F 30.64*** 27.56*** 21.42*** 20.02*** 35.12*** 32.32*** 33.84*** 37.87*** 44.56*** 41.08***

*p < 0.10; **p < 0.05; ***p < 0.01 (based on two-tailed tests); HW robust standard errors are in parentheses.
Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow
Table 3 Robust Regression Analysis (n = 1558)

Dependent variable: standardized project duration

Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 Model 5 Model 6 Model 7 Model 8 Model 9 Model 10
Define Intensity 0.528*** 0.988*** 0.980*** 0.964*** 0.955*** 0.926*** 0.966*** 1.00*** 0.997***
(0.097) (0.152) (0.151) (0.150) (0.150) (0.177) (0.150) (0.150) (0.149)
(Define Intensity)2 (H1) 3.105*** 3.130*** 3.022*** 2.892*** 2.024*** 2.951*** 3.469*** 3.539***
(0.608) (0.605) (0.599) (0.601) (0.716) (0.600) (0.604) (0.607)
Ln(Num_Objectives) (H2) 0.158*** 0.141*** 0.165*** 0.140*** 0.138*** 0.140*** 0.164***
(0.039) (0.038) (0.045) (0.038) (0.038) (0.038) (0.045)
Complex01 (H2) 0.057** 0.064*** 0.065*** 0.036 0.063*** 0.065*** 0.023
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow

(0.023) (0.023) (0.023) (0.027) (0.023) (0.023) (0.027)

Ln(BB_experience) (H4) 0.071*** 0.072*** 0.072*** 0.055*** 0.071*** 0.057***
(0.015) (0.015) (0.015) (0.017) (0.015) (0.018)
Ln(Org_experience) (H4) 0.157* 0.156* 0.159** 0.168** 0.179** 0.185**
(0.080) (0.080) (0.080) (0.080) (0.080) (0.080)
Define Intensity 9 Ln(Num_Objectives) 0.134 0.144
(0.550) (0.550)
(Define Intensity)2 9 Ln(Num_Objectives) (H3) 3.115 3.680
(2.34) (2.45)
Define Intensity 9 Complex01 0.023 0.169
(0.330) (0.330)
(Define intensity)2 9 Complex01 (H3) 3.107** 4.461***
(2.39) (2.34)
Define Intensity 9 Ln(BB_experience) 0.166 0.085
(0.200) (0.228)
(Define Intensity)2 9 Ln(BB_experience) (H5) 1.751** 1.627*
(0.762) (0.891)
Define intensity 9 Ln(Org_experience) 0.288 0.299
(0.184) (0.211)
(Define Intensity)2 9 Ln(Org_experience) (H5) 2.715*** 2.343***
(0.784) (0.883)
Technical 0.032 0.031 0.030 0.044 0.055* 0.053* 0.053* 0.056* 0.059* 0.054*
(0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031) (0.031)
Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society

Major 0.001 0.008 0.002 0.003 0.009 0.012 0.008 0.008 0.011 0.008
(0.026) (0.026) (0.026) (0.026) (0.026) (0.026) (0.026) (0.026) (0.026) (0.026)
Hard 0.086*** 0.086*** 0.084*** 0.062** 0.060** 0.057* 0.056* 0.067** 0.066** 0.059*
(0.031) (0.030) (0.030) (0.031) (0.030) (0.030) (0.030) (0.030) (0.030) (0.030)
Quarter dummies Included Included Included Included Included Included Included Included Included Included
Intercept 0.397*** 0.395*** 0.698** 0.723** 0.564* 0.570* 0.556* 0.542* 0.514* 0.484
(0.104) (0.102) (0.296) (0.295) (0.302) (0.302) (0.301) (0.302) (0.302) (0.301)
R2 0.071 0.088 0.096 0.108 0.124 0.123 0.131 0.130 0.136 0.148
Adjusted R2 0.061 0.077 0.085 0.095 0.111 0.109 0.117 0.116 0.122 0.131
F 6.99*** 8.28*** 8.68*** 8.87*** 9.45*** 8.67*** 9.28*** 9.23*** 9.66*** 8.57***

*p < 0.10; **p < 0.05; ***p < 0.01 (based on two-tailed tests); standard errors are in parentheses.
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow
1472 Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society

els from Table 2 but are positive and significant from critical to facilitating completion of complex projects,
models 5 to 10 in Table 3. These results suggest that albeit the partial support of Hypothesis 3.
technical projects may take longer to complete than Finally, Hypothesis 5 is supported. Hypothesis 5
non-technical projects. The variable Major, however, predicts the negative moderating (weakening) effect
is not significant in all models from Tables 2 and 3. of prior project experience and the corresponding
Finally, Quarter Dummies are included in all models coefficients, (Define Intensity)2 9 Ln(BB_experience)
and are mostly significant (for simplicity, detailed and (Define Intensity)2 9 Ln(Org_experience), should
results are not showed in Tables 2 and 3). The signifi- be negative and significant in models 8, 9, and 10.
cant effects imply potential variations due to business Three corresponding coefficients from Table 2 are
cycle effect are likely controlled for in our results. negative and significant; and in Table 3, all four corre-
Hypothesis 1 is strongly supported. The coefficient sponding coefficients are negative and significant.
of the squared term, (Define Intensity)2, is positive and Taken together, the results show sufficient evidence
significant in model 3 (both Tables 2 and 3), which that supports our prediction. The interaction effects
supports the predicted U-shaped relationship are also shown graphically in Figures 2 and 3.
between Define Intensity and project duration. Figure 2 shows the U-shaped effects of Define Intensity
Hypotheses 2 and 4 are supported by the results of on standardized project duration with three values of
models 4 and 5. In particular, we test H2 by using two Ln(BB_experience): low (one standard deviation below
variables for project complexity (i.e., Ln(Num_Objec- the mean), medium (mean), and high (one standard
tives) and Complex01) in model 4 and H4 by using two deviation above the mean). Similarly, Figure 3 shows
variables for prior project experience (i.e., Ln(BB_expe-
rience) and Ln(Org_experience)) in model 5. All four
coefficients are significant (in either Table 2 or Figure 1 Interaction Plot between Define Intensity and Complex01
Table 3) and are in the expected signs, showing that

project complexity lengthens project duration but

Standardized Project Duration

prior project experience shortens it.


To evaluate curvilinear by linear interactions, we

entered two associated interaction terms each time in

separate models (refer Cohen et al. 2003). Hypothesis

3, which predicts the positive moderation of project

complexity, is tested by the results from models 6, 7,

and 10. Models 6 and 7 test interactions related to Ln

(Num_Objectives) and Complex01 separately, and


model 10 tests all interaction terms together. Since we

expect a positive moderating (strengthening) effect, 0 .05 .1 .15 .2 .25 .3 .35 .4 .45 .5 .55 .6

the corresponding coefficients of (Define Intensity)2 9 Define Intensity

Ln(Num_Objectives) and (Define Intensity)2 9 Com- Low Complex01 (= 0)

High Complex01 (= 1)
plex01 should be positive and significant in models 6,
7, and 10, respectively. In Table 2, the two coefficients
in models 6 and 7 are positive but not significant;
however, in the all-inclusive model 10 one of the two Figure 2 Interaction Plot between Define Intensity and Ln(BB_experi-
coefficients is positive and significant (i.e., (Define ence)
Intensity)2 9 Complex01). Results in Table 3 are con-

sistent with models 7 and 10 showing positive and

Standardized Project Duration

significant coefficients of (Define Intensity)2 9 Com-


plex01; however, the coefficients of (Define Inten-

sity)2 9 Ln(Num_Objectives) in models 6 and 10 are
again not significant.

Given the three significant coefficients of (Define

Intensity)2 9 Complex01 but non-significant tests of

(Define Intensity)2 9 Ln(Num_Objectives), Hypothesis

3 is partially supported. Figure 1 shows the U-shaped

effects of Define Intensity on standardized project 0 .05 .1 .15 .2 .25 .3 .35 .4 .45 .5 .55 .6
duration when Complex01 is low (=0) and high (=1). Define Intensity

The plots show that projects with high complexity Low Ln(BB_experience) ( - 1 S.D.)
have a stronger U-shaped effect, indicating that the Medium Ln(BB_experience) (Mean)
High Ln(BB_experience) ( + 1 S.D.)
balancing of time spent on problem definition is more
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow
Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society 1473

Figure 3 Interaction Plot between Define Intensity and Ln(Org_experi- Although a team with a high level of prior project
ence) experience might spend more time on problem defini-
tion, the team is also more adaptable to change and

capable of reducing the risk of delays in completing

Standardized Project Duration

projects. In other words, teams with high levels of

prior project experience more ably balance the need

to spend increased time on problem definition with-

out necessarily delaying project completion.

4.1. Post-hoc Analysis

We further analyzed a possible association between
project duration and another project performance

0 .05 .1 .15 .2 .25 .3 .35 .4 .45 .5 .55 .6 measure by regressing Ln(Project Savings) on all study
Define Intensity variables including project duration. Project savings
Low Ln(Org_experience) ( - 1 S.D.) are based on the financial impacts associated with
Medium Ln(Org_experience) (Mean)
project outcomes. The company calculated and veri-
High Ln(Org_experience) ( + 1 S.D.)
fied these savings based on their direct and/or indi-
rect project savings, which were generated by cost
the same U-shaped effects but plotted with three lev- reductions in various areas such as labor, material,
els of Ln(Org_experience). Whether prior project expe- scrap and rework, overhead, and capital. Table 4 pre-
rience is measured by the cumulative number of prior sents the results. In both OLS and robust regression
projects completed by a Black Belt, or by the cumula- models (models 1 and 3), coefficients of Standardized
tive number of the organizations prior projects, both Project Duration are negative and significant, showing
Figures 2 and 3 show that as prior project experience that shorter project duration is correlated with higher
increases, the U-shaped curve of Define Intensity performance based on project savings. In the models
becomes flatter. This implies that both the accelerat- using OLS (models 1 and 2), the significant coeffi-
ing and delaying effects of spending time in the cients of Ln(Org_experience), Ln(Num_Objectives), and
Define phase are less evident in projects with higher Complex01 are consistent with our hypotheses. How-
levels of prior project experience. Prior project experi- ever, these coefficients are not significant in the mod-
ence, which also directly reduces project duration, els using robust regression (i.e., models 3 and 4).
can indirectly weaken the effect of spending time in Define Intensity and (Define Intensity)2 are also not sig-
the Define phase on project duration. Thus, balancing nificant in all models, which are not surprising
the amount of time spent at problem definition is because these time-related measures are hypothesized
easier to manage with prior project experience. to influence project duration and not project savings.
Interestingly, Figure 2 shows that projects led by In addition, we did another robustness check (as sug-
Black Belts with less experience have an optimal point gested by a reviewer) for a potential non-linear
(lowest standardized project duration) that corre- (inverted-U) relationship between project duration
sponds to about 0.2 of Define Intensity (i.e., 20% of the and project savings because very quick projects might
overall project time) but the optimal point occurs at a have very low project savings. So, we included a
higher value (about 0.3) of Define Intensity for projects squared term of project duration in models 2 and 4;
led by Black Belts with more experience. Similar pat- but, the results show the coefficients are not signifi-
terns occur in Figure 3. These patterns imply that cant. Altogether, these additional analyses provide
teams with experienced Black Belts (or high levels of evidence that shorter project durations are associated
prior project experience) did not necessarily spend with higher project savings, further emphasizing the
less time in the Define phase because the U-curves importance of studying project duration.
optimal point (lowest standardized project duration)
is located at a higher level of Define Intensity for a team
with a high level of prior project experience. An expe-
5. Discussion
rienced team3 , while proficient at problem solving, Einstein was once asked what he would do if he had
could take more time to define a problem because an hour to save the world, and he responded that he
they recognize the particular importance of more would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and
information and knowledge while a team with a then 5 minutes solving it (Michalko 2001). Einsteins
lower level of prior project experience could overlook response underscores the importance of spending
it. Some research also shows experts (high experience) time on problem definition. When a team encounters
spend more time than novices (low experience) a problem, multiple problem representations can be
defining a problem (Lesgold 1988, Voss et al. 1983). activated by different members. These representations
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow
1474 Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society

Table 4 Regression Analysis on Ln(Project Savings) (n = 1558)

Dependent variable: Ln(Project savings)

OLS with HW SE Robust regression

Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4

Standardized project duration 1.308*** 1.534*** 0.194** 0.201*
(0.268) (0.318) (0.084) (0.107)
(Standardized project duration)2 0.256 0.007
(0.231) (0.074)
Define intensity 0.645 0.700 0.766 0.767
(1.85) (1.85) (0.613) (0.614)
(Define intensity)2 3.706 3.106 1.334 1.318
(7.42) (7.38) (2.44) (2.45)
Ln(Num_Objectives) 2.299*** 2.299*** 0.073 0.073
(0.495) (0.494) (0.156) (0.157)
Complex01 0.905*** 0.904*** 0.072 0.072
(0.281) (0.280) (0.092) (0.093)
Ln(BB_experience) 0.207 0.223 0.081 0.081
(0.182) (0.183) (0.062) (0.062)
Ln(Org_experience) 2.026** 2.035** 0.005 0.003
(1.011) (1.007) (0.324) (0.325)
Technical 0.749** 0.786** 0.027 0.028
(0.379) (0.381) (0.125) (0.125)
Major 0.509 0.515 0.439*** 0.439***
(0.318) (0.318) (0.104) (0.105)
Hard 7.12*** 7.12*** 11.39*** 11.39***
(0.268) (0.268) (0.123) (0.123)
Quarter dummies Included Included Included Included
Intercept 2.64 2.93 3.179*** 3.188***
(1.95) (1.95) (1.22) (1.22)
R2 0.303 0.301 0.861 0.861
Adjusted R2 0.289 0.289 0.859 0.859
F 66.35*** 64.00*** 398.34*** 381.44***

*p < 0.10; **p < 0.05; ***p < 0.01 (based on two-tailed tests); standard errors are in parentheses.

should be considered collectively and systematically finding of an U-shaped effect between problem defi-
to effectively define and understand the teams focal nition and project duration shows that a point of
problem. Allocating ample time in the early problem- diminishing returns occurs when more time spent
solving phase encourages team members to voice defining a problem stops being advantageous. This
legitimate concerns and prevents a group from reject- can be due to collective and individual cognitive limi-
ing good ideas as a result of too little discussion. Also, tations in recognizing relevant knowledge (Simon
people are more creative when they are given more 1991). Procrastination may have occurred as well,
time to think about their problems (Amabile et al. which can happen in any stage of a project (ODon-
2005). In Six Sigma projects, problem formulation is oghue and Rabin 2008). While it has been argued that
found to be important for ensuring creativity in prob- successful projects typically begin with a long period
lem solving (Anand et al. 2010, p. 312). Spending time of project definition (Dvir and Shenhar 2011, p. 20),
in the early problem-solving phase potentially creates our study shows the importance of a balanced
a better problem understanding and increases creativ- approach to allocating the appropriate amount of
ity in problem solving, which together facilitate the time spent in problem definition of a project. In the
teams generation of solutions. context of quality improvement, project teams not
While spending time to clearly define a problem only must avoid allocating too little time but also
contributes to resolving it, allocating too much time must avoid spending too much time in the early
to problem definition risks delaying a project because phase of defining quality improvement problems.
of diminishing returns to learning. The process of The ease of balancing time spent in problem defini-
improving problem formulation can become satu- tion depends on prior project experience. We found
rated in a way that incremental learning yielded that the cumulative number of projects done by a
from spending additional time to define the problem Black Belt and the cumulative number of projects
becomes marginal, possibly even deleterious. The completed by an organization negatively moderated
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow
Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society 1475

the U-shaped effect of problem definition time on pro- Despite the partial support of the moderating hypoth-
ject duration. Prior project experience is also found to esis, identification and conceptualization of a problem
directly reduce project duration. Collectively, these is likely harder in complex projects, which potentially
findings suggest experienced project leaders and the reduces the ease of balancing between too little and
learning accumulated from prior completed projects too much time spent in problem definition stage. This
should directly and indirectly facilitate project com- implies that decreasing project complexity may
pletion. In particular, project teams with a lower level enhance the ease of problem definition. Some
of prior project experience should pay more attention research has argued that the Six Sigma method helps
to the amount of time spent on problem definition to to reduce task complexity by breaking down complex
compensate for their experience deficit. With less- tasks in a quality improvement project into simpler
experienced members, implementing deadlines at dif- and more solvable components (Linderman et al.
ferent project stages could offset the deleterious 2003). However, the use of Six Sigma method needs
effects associated with lack of experience (Sarin and to be flexible in order for a team to be adaptive and
Mahajan 2001). Such Six Sigma project teams also can creative while engaged in problem solving for a com-
focus more on applying Six Sigma tools during plex project (Nair et al. 2011). Using problem as a
problem definition (Linderman et al. 2004, Singh and unit of analysis, Nickerson and Zenger (2004) theo-
Khanduja 2012). rized that a problems complexity should influence
On the other hand, a team with experienced indi- the method of solution search. As a problem increases
viduals can work more intuitively because they are in complexity, the means used to reduce complexity
able to recognize meaningful patterns in a problem become critical to solving the problem. From this van-
that novices cannot (Crossan et al. 1999). Consequen- tage point, the up-front problem definition in projects
tially, the Six Sigma methodology could play a smal- can possibly reduce or increase problem complexity,
ler role. As Swink and Jacobs (2012, p. 450) argued, resulting in speeding up or slowing down of project
while Six Sigma may entail distinctive organizational completion.
structures, problem-solving tools, and metrics, these Several managerial implications can be derived
attributes appear to be less important for already from our findings. First, project teams with little prior
experienced firms. From a practice standpoint, we project experience should be assigned less complex
hesitate to recommend that more experienced teams projects and should also be advised to closely follow
use fewer Six Sigma tools because our study did not the recommended structure of the Six Sigma method.
test the usage of problem-solving tools. Future Alternatively, a complex project can be broken down
research could examine the relationship between the into smaller projects such as green belt projects (Hin-
use of problem-solving tools and project performance. do 2007, Rasis et al. 2002). Also, Master Black Belts or
Furthermore, some scholars have proposed that Six experienced Black Belts can be more involved in the
Sigma is effective for innovation in stable environ- problem formulation of initial Six Sigma projects that
ments but not in turbulent conditions (Adler et al. are led by less-experienced or newly trained Black
2009, Nair et al. 2011, Parast 2011). Relatedly, while Belts. This increased involvement should complement
experience facilitates learning, it creates inertia and the leadership support provided by Champions who
impedes learning in turbulent environments (Levin- offer a holistic view of the focal problem and ensure
thal and March 1993). Extending this research to vary- buy-in and resource availability for Six Sigma projects
ing levels of environmental munificence in different (Schroeder et al. 2008, p. 541). Furthermore, it is nota-
industries could develop more insights into a broader ble that people who have prior experience working
understanding of the interrelationships between Six together may have developed greater trust in each
Sigma and project experience, further testing the other and are consequently likely to be more effective
generalizability of our findings. in complex problem solving. Managers, therefore,
Our study also found evidence that complex pro- should emphasize the importance of building trust
jects took a longer time to complete. Complex projects within a team as it enables more effective learning
consist of tasks and problems that are more challeng- behaviors (Edmondson 1999). For instance, team-
ing because they involve extensive information pro- based incentives can be implemented to reward coop-
cessing, more coordination, and frequent change eration among team members because individuals are
(Fernandes and Simon 1999, Wood 1986). While we likely to contribute a significant amount of their time
hypothesized that time spent in problem definition and energy to a project if they feel that their team
would have a stronger effect for complex projects, we efforts will be appreciated and rewarded in a fair and
only found evidence of the interaction effect for one just manner.
out of the two variables used to measure project There are a few limitations to this study. First,
complexity. The non-significant results of the other it focuses specifically on projects using the Six
variable could be due to idiosyncrasy of the measure. Sigma methodology for quality improvement. Other
Choo: Defining Problems Fast and Slow
1476 Production and Operations Management 23(8), pp. 14621479, 2014 Production and Operations Management Society

contexts such as lean and problem-solving work at for a firm to carefully select and define its (strategic)
the group and individual levels of analysis would be problems to effectively and efficiently organize solu-
useful to test the generalizability of our results. For tion searches that would develop and sustain its orga-
instance, Staats et al. (2011) found that applying lean nizational competence (Baer et al. 2013, Nickerson
principles to IT projects affected learning by improv- and Zenger 2004).
ing problem identification and problem resolution.
Moritz et al. (2013) analyzed individual forecasting
decisions and found their forecast errors were higher
for very fast and very slow decisions. Second, we only I thank the department editor, Stylianos (Stelios) Kavadias,
investigated project duration as our dependent vari- and his review team for their insightful comments that have
able to reflect the pace of problem solving. Although greatly improved the paper. I also thank Martha Grabowski,
we found projects that were completed faster also Yusen Xia, and Peter Zhang for their valuable feedback on
performed better with regard to project savings, earlier drafts. Finally, I am grateful to my sponsors from the
research site and Christine Anlicker for copy editing of the
research studies from the product development litera-
ture have argued that potential trade-offs may exist
between time and other performance metrics (Griffin
2002, Swink et al. 2006). Therefore, future research
could study other problem-solving performance mea- For the purpose of this study, we consider the term infor-
sures such as novelty and utility of solutions. Third, mation broadly as referring to the collection and interpre-
our findings are limited by the sample being derived tation of data. Some information science studies have used
from a single firm, albeit studying projects in a single the two termsdata and informationinterchangeably as
they are necessarily intertwined (Fricke 2009, Machlup
firm enabled us to control for confounding factors
1983, Saab and Riss 2011).
across firms such as cultures, industries, and markets. 2
In the early stage of a project when a focal problem is
Fourth, our results are limited by the low values of R2 defined, information processing includes collecting and
with a maximum of 14.8% variance explained. This interpreting data. As Daft and Lengel (1986) argued,
potential shortcoming, however, does not affect the information processing in organizations involves not only
precision of our parameter estimates as our regression collecting data to remedy a lack of data (uncertainty)
models are based on a relatively large sample size but also interpreting data to mitigate a lack of clarity (equiv-
(Wooldridge 2009, p. 199). Finally, our sample only ocality). When multiple problem definitions are possible
includes successfully completed projects. About 3% and goals are ambiguous, sharing opinions and interpreta-
of Six Sigma projects in the company were canceled, tions of data among team members play an important role
which were excluded from our sample because of in the Define phase (Singh and Khanduja 2012).
Note that we did not specifically measure team experi-
their incomplete time data. Nevertheless, canceled
ence in our study. Our use of the term experienced
projects could provide a means for investigating and team is limited to discussion of our results. On the basis
understanding failures in problem solving (e.g., Cha- of our knowledge of the research site, a project with a
kravorty 2009). high level of prior project experience likely consisted of
experienced team members. Furthermore, experience accu-
mulated from doing Six Sigma projects can be transferred
6. Conclusions and shared among team members across multiple projects
Our study demonstrates how a problem-solving per- over time in an organization (Schroeder et al. 2008).
spective helps advance our understanding of the
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