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.


Respect for People in Light of Systems Thinking:


Respect for People is one of the two pillars in the Toyota Way and in today’s post I will be looking at Respect for People in the light of ideas from the late great Systems Thinker, Russell Ackoff. This post is inspired by Ackoff’s teachings.

Back in the old days (Renaissance period onwards – 1400’s) humans knew little and thought that they knew everything. There was a lot of stress on “Analysis” and “cause and effect” thinking. The thinking behind “Analysis” is that one learns a phenomenon by taking things apart. This was seen as the only way to understand the universe – by breaking down things and studying each part. This fostered the idea of cause and effect thinking. Every relationship was seen as a cause and an effect, in a linear fashion. In Ackoff’s words, this led to interesting doctrines;

The commitment to cause-and-effect thinking led to … if we want to explain a phenomenon, all we have to do is find its cause. To further explain that cause, we simply treat it as an effect and find its cause. But is there any end to this causal regression? If the universe can be completely understood, there had to be a first cause—and this was the official doctrine as to why God exists. God is the only thing in the universe that could not be explained because God was the first cause.

This type of linear thinking led us to thinking of the world as a clockwork machine. The Industrial Revolution introduced the machine age where work could be mechanized. Work was seen in a reductionist viewpoint as a simple transformation of matter through energy. Frederick Taylor, proponent of Scientific Management, introduced the ideas of improving efficiency through principles of Industrial Engineering. Work could now be broken down into basic elements – analysis, and each element can be focused on to improve it. The modern factory consisted of machines and humans engaged in these basic tasks in a clockwork fashion. In Ackoff’s words;

The machines and people were then aggregated into a network of elementary tasks dedicated to the production of a product—the modern factory. In the process of mechanizing work, however, we made people behave as though they were machines. We dehumanized work.

This goes against the idea of Respect for Humanity. Toyota teaches that its production system is a Thinking Production System, and that their operators are not just a pair of hands.

Ackoff concludes that the idea of free will, introduction of the Uncertainty principle and Systems Thinking launched the Systems Age in the first half of Twentieth Century. In Systems Thinking, the approach of “Synthesis” was introduced. “Synthesis” uses the opposite approach to “Analysis”.” Synthesis” is the idea of putting things together to understand the system. In Ackoff’s words;

The first step of synthesis is to determine the larger system of which the system to be explained is a part. The second step is to try to understand the larger system as a whole. The third step is to disaggregate the understanding of the whole into an understanding of the part by identifying its role or function in the containing system.

If Analysis leads to Knowledge, Synthesis leads to Understanding! However, this also meant that we may never be able to understand the whole universe. The concept of Synthesis forces us to look at the impact of the environment and each factor and how they interact with each other. This was missing in Analysis. This idea led to the understanding that an organization is not a simple mechanistic clockwork where people are mere forms of “living machinery”. An organization in the light of Systems Thinking becomes a Social Technical system. Ackoff advises us;

Most managers are still acting as though the corporation is a mechanism or an organism, not a social system. Although we don’t normally treat machines as organisms, one legacy from the Machine Age is that we have a tendency to treat organisms as machines, and even social systems as machines. That has a very limited usefulness, but it is not nearly as useful as looking at a social system as a social system.

This provides further insight into the concept of Respect for People in my opinion. Respect for People is not thinking in terms of the Machine Age. It is about looking at the social system and seeing workers as people who can think and come up with better ways of doing things, and where the system gains from their input.

Final Words:

I encourage the readers to read or watch anything that is available from Russell Ackoff. I will finish off with a “Zen” story from Japan that talks about the harmony of the whole;

There’s a story about the famous rock garden at Ryōanji temple. The story goes that when the garden was finished, the designer showed it to the priest and asked him what he thought.

The priest was delighted. “It’s magnificent!” he said. “Especially that rock there!”

The garden designer immediately removed the rock. For him, the harmony of the whole was paramount.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Value of Silence.