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Defining Problems Fast and Slow: The U-shaped Effect of Problem Definition Time on Project Duration



This study examines how time spent in problem definition affects problem solving in projects such as Six Sigma 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 suggests 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.

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