The Big Picture of Problem Solving:

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In today’s post, I will be looking at Problem Solving. I am a Quality Professional, and this is a topic near and dear to my heart. There are several problem solving methods out there which includes tools like the Ishikawa Diagram, 5 Why, etc. I will try to shed light on the big picture of problem solving.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of reductionist thinking when trying to solve problems. The reductionist approach is to take things apart and study the parts in isolation. We need to understand that problems are sometimes attributed to the emergent properties of the system and are manifestations of the interactions between the parts. This means that a system has parts, and that the properties of the system are the sum of the whole of the parts and the interactions between the parts. The parts themselves cannot perform the function of the system. For example, the wheel of a bicycle cannot do anything by itself. The same is applicable to the handle. Even when the different parts are put together, the bicycle by itself cannot do anything by itself. When there is a rider, then there is the possibility of the pedals moving, and the wheels rolling. We can say that the system is the bicycle and the rider combined together, and this system has a purpose – to go from one place to the other.

From a problem solving standpoint, we should use both reductionist and holistic approaches. Reductionist thinking is mechanistic in nature, and it does not look at how everything works in relation to one another. However, this thinking has value and is needed to some extent. Russell Ackoff, the famous Systems Thinker, has stated that reductionist thinking, the idea that everything can be reduced to its individual parts, helps us in understanding how a system works. However, this does not explain why a system works the way it does. This requires holistic thinking. Holistic thinking is the “big picture” thinking – how the parts interact together to align with the system’s purpose, and how the system’s emergent properties align with the system’s purpose. This is the thinking that leads to the understanding of why a system is acting the way it is.

When we add humans in the mix, we are introducing parts that have a purpose on its own that may not align with the system’s purpose. The problems that arise from the interaction of humans and other parts in the system are tricky. One of my favorite stories on this is the Cobra Effect story. During the British rule in India, there was a concern about the high number of venomous snakes, especially deadly Cobras, in Delhi. The British regime in Delhi posted rewards for dead Cobras. This had some impact initially since the farmers started killing Cobras. However, things soon got out of hand when some of the farmers started breeding Cobras in order to get the reward. The reward program was scrapped by the British regime when they became aware of this. The interaction between the farmers and the reward system was strong, and the purpose of the farmers was to get as much reward as possible, where as the intent of the system as desired by the British regime was to eliminate or reduce venomous snakes. It is not easy to predict all things that can go wrong, however as we build a system we should look into resilience properties of the system with the expectation that some interactions have been overlooked.

This also reminds me of a manufacturing related story from my Materials Selection class in school. A plant started utilizing ultrasonically welded plastic parts to which plastic tubes were assembled on to. After 6 months, an operator noted that all of the assembled components in inventory were cracked. This puzzled everybody, and the finger was first pointed at the suppler that provided the welded plastic parts. However, the inventory of the incoming components did not show any cracked parts. It was later identified that a new operator started using alcohol as a lubricant to assemble the tubes onto the plastic parts. The operator was trying to make the operation easier to do. The alcohol-induced chemical-stress along with the residual stress from the welding led to the cracking. The human interaction on the part – the ease to assemble was not looked at. The operator’s purpose was to make his process easy and did not look at the big picture – how this interacted with other parts in the system.

Reductionist thinking alone is linear in nature and leads to quick fixes and band-aids.  Some examples are simply replacing a part of the system or providing training alone as the reaction to the problem.

Holistic thinking, on the other hand, is not linear in nature and does not lead to quick fixes with the hope that it addresses the problem. Holistic thinking results in either changing a part of the system, or changing how a part interacts with the system. Both of these result in a modified system.

I have identified nine points to further improve our big picture understanding of problem solving;

  • Problems as Manifestations of Emergent Properties:

Sometimes, the problems are manifestations of the emergent properties in the system. This means that the interactions between parts in the system, when the system is taken as a whole, resulted in the problem. This type of problem cannot be addressed by looking at the parts alone.

  • Cause- Effect Relationship is not Always Linear:

It is not likely that the cause-effect relationship is always linear. Factor “A” does not cause Effect “B”. Factor “A’s” in the interaction with Factor “D” and Factor “E” in the presence of the environment of the system resulted in the problem. The problem and the cause(s) are not always direct and easy to trace.

  • It’s About Interactions:

When trying to solve a problem, understand the interactions in the system first. This was explained by the two stories above.

  • Does Your Solution Create New Problems?

The “verification” stage of a problem solving activity is always deemed as important. This is when we verify that our solution addresses the problem. However, we also need to look at whether the solution can create a new problem. Are we impacting or creating any new interactions that we are not aware of? This is evident from the adage – “Today’s problems are created by yesterday’s solutions”.

  • Go to the Gemba:

The best and possibly the only way to truly understand the interactions and how the system behaves in an environment is by going to the Gemba – where the action is. You cannot solve a problem effectively by sitting in an Office environment.

  • How Much Does Your Solution Fix the Problem?

There is always more than one solution that can address the problem. Some of these are not feasible or not cost effective. One solution alone cannot address the problem in its entirety. There are two questions that are asked in a problem solving process. a) Why did the problem happen? And b) Why did the problem escape the production environment? In the light of these questions, we should understand, how much of the problem can be fixed by our solutions.

  • What is the Impact of Environment?

Sometimes problems exist in certain conditions only. Sometimes problems manifest themselves in certain environmental conditions. The most recent Wells Fargo incident is reported to have started by the push from the Management to meet the aggressive sales goals. This created an environment that eventually led to fraudulent activities. An article on CNN reported; “Relentless pressure. Wildly unrealistic sales targets.” The employees were asked to sell at least eight accounts to every customer, from about three accounts ten years earlier. The reason for eight accounts was explained by the CEO as – “Why eight? “The answer is, it rhymed with ‘great,

  • Quick Fixes = Temporary Local Optimization:

Problems persist when the first reaction is to put band-aids on it. We have to see quick fixes as an attempt to temporarily optimize locally in the hopes that the problem will go away. This almost always leads to an increase in cost and reduction in quality and productivity.

  • Involve the Parts in your Solution:

It goes without saying that the solutions should always involve the people involved in the process. It is ultimately their process. It is our job to make sure that they are aware of the system in its entirety. For example, train them on how a product is eventually used. What is the impact of what they do?

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was In-the-Customer’s-Shoes Quality.

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Four Approaches to Problem Solving:

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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.