Four Approaches to Problem Solving:


As a Quality professional, I am always interested in learning about problem solving. In today’s post I will be looking at the four approaches to Problem Solving as taught by the late great Systems Thinker, Russell Ackoff. He called these “Problem Treatments” – the ways one deals with problems. They are;

  1. Absolution – This is a common reaction to a problem. This means to ignore a problem with the hope that it will solve by itself or it will go away of its own accord.
  2. Resolution – This means to do something that yields an outcome that is “good enough”, in other words, that “satisfices”. This involves a clinical approach to problems that relies heavily on past experience, trial and error, qualitative judgment, and so-called common sense.
  3. Solution – This means to do something that yields the best outcome that “optimizes”. This involves a research approach to problems, one that often relies on experimentation, quantitative analysis, and uncommon sense. This is the realm of effective counterintuitive solutions.
  4. Dissolution – This means to redesign either the entity that has the problem or its environment in such a way as to eliminate the problem and enable the entity involved to do better in the future that the best it can do today – in a word, to “idealize”.

I see it also as the progression of our reaction to a big problem. At first, we try to ignore it. Then we try to put band aids on it. Then we try to make the process better, and finally we change a portion of the process so that the problem cannot exist in the new process. Ackoff gave a story in his book, “The Democratic Corporation”, to further explain these ideas. Ackoff was called in by a consultant to help with a problem in a large city in Europe. The city used double-decker buses for public transportation that had a bus driver and a conductor in it. The driver got paid extra based on how efficiently he could keep up with the schedule, and the conductor got paid extra based on how efficiently he could collect fares and keeps track of receipts. The conductor was also in charge of letting the driver know when the bus was ready to move by signaling to them from the rear entrance to the bus. During peak hours, problems arose. To meet the high volume of passengers, conductors started to let passengers in without collecting fares with the thought that they could be collected between stops. The conductors could not always get back to the entrance to signal to the driver that they were ready to move. The drivers started to determine themselves when they could move by trying to see that no one was getting off or on to the bus. All this caused delays that were costly to the driver. This resulted in great hostility between the drivers and the conductors. The drivers were trying to do what was best for them, and the conductors were trying to do what was best for them.

The management at first tried to “absolve” by pretending that the problem would go away on its own. When things got worse, the management tried to “resolve” by proposing to retract the incentives. This was not met well by both the drivers and conductors, and the management was not willing to increase their wages to offset the incentives. Next the management tried to “solve” the problem by proposing that the driver and the conductor share the total sum of incentives. This also was not met well by the drivers and the conductors because of lack of trust and unwillingness to increase their interdependence.

Finally, Ackoff proposed a modification to the process. He proposed that during the peak hours the conductors should be taken off the bus and placed at the stops. This way he can collect the fares from the people already at the stop, and he can verify the receipts of the people getting off the bus. He also can easily signal the bus driver. The problem was “dissolved” by this modification to the process.

Final Words:

One of the best teachings from Ackoff for Management is that to manage a system effectively, you must focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behaviors (actions) taken separately. The next time you are facing a problem, think and understand if you are trying to absolve, resolve, solve or dissolve the problem. I will finish with a great story from Osho about the butcher who never had to sharpen his knife.

There was a great butcher in Japan and he was said to be a Zen master. After hearing about him, the emperor came to see him at his work. The emperor asked only one thing, about the knife that he used to kill the animals. The knife looked so shiny, as if it had just been sharpened.

The emperor asked, “Do you sharpen your knife every day?”

He said, “No, this is the knife my father used, and his father used, and it has never been sharpened. But we know exactly the points where it has to cut the animal so there is a minimum of pain possible — through the joints where two bones meet. The knife has to go through the joint, and those two bones that meet there go on sharpening the knife. And that is the point where the animal is going to feel the minimum pain. I am aware of the interactions.”

“For three generations we have not sharpened the knife. A butcher sharpening a knife simply means he does not know his art.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Respect for People in light of Systems Thinking.


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