Problem Solving Pitfalls
Three common pitfalls can greatly affect the quality of our work in solving business and workplace problems.
The Obvious Solution
One of the most common mistakes people make in solving work and personal problems is to direct their energies to the first solution that comes to mind. There is a natural tendency to come up with one solution and then implement it. It is possible to stumble upon the best solution in this approach, but it is not a repeatable process.
By stopping at one solution, innovative ideas are not explored and often the better solution is never identified, resulting in a less than optimal outcome.
Knowledge is a Barrier
One of the main causes of this appears to be knowledge of the problem itself. Knowledge is a wonderful thing. It can also be a barrier to thinking. The more knowledge someone has about a particular problem or process, the greater the tendency to ‘know what the answer is’. Just think about your experiences at work and in your personal life. When something goes wrong, what do people naturally tend to do?
My experience is that they very quickly come to some conclusions about the obvious solution in most cases. How often have you had arguments with a person when he or she comes up with a solution to some simple problem and you think the real solution is something else entirely? Both of you have followed your natural instincts because you probably knew the problem very well.
This is a natural survival mechanism. When decisions about fight or flight to survive need to be made, there are few choices. It is a simple process which requires a person to make a decision quickly on the basis of his or her knowledge and experience, and take action in order to survive.
In a highly complex world of artificial environments, where caves no longer form a part of our culture, there are infinitely more potential solutions to most problems. The natural instinct to identify ‘the solution’ straight away can impede real progress.
That is not to say that we should not follow this approach at any time.
There will be times when we must quickly choose a solution and the first, most logical solution that comes to mind may well be appropriate in an emergency situation. However, the challenge for us is not to follow our natural instincts in every situation. Sometimes we have to break out of our own patterns of thinking, particularly when we have to compete as we do in the business world today.
The second cause for this is our perception of the problem.
Have you ever looked inside a clock? Not a digital time piece but one of those that actually has moving parts and ticks. When you remove the cover to view the insides, the first thing your eyes are drawn to is the large circular part that spins in a continually alternating manner. It is the largest and most active part we can see and it quickly attracts our attention.
Our perception could quite naturally be that this wheel, called the oscillating wheel, is the driving force within the clock’s mechanism.
The fact is the clock’s mechanism is not driven by this wheel. It is really driven by the coiled spring that sits quietly in the background, slowly unwinding and releasing its energy to the other gears within the mechanism.
In dealing with a workplace problem, our attention will naturally be drawn to some sign that we actually have a problem. In many cases, this sign becomes the focal point, just like the oscillating wheel in the clock, and our energies are directed towards treating the sign with an ‘obvious’ solution. In these cases we have assumed that a ‘causal relationship’ exists between the sign we observe and the problem, yet this may not be true.
Imagine for a moment that you had a child with a high temperature. The temperature of the child is a sign that a problem exists. If you just wanted to address the sign of the problem, the obvious treatment would be to lower the child’s body temperature by cooling. Does that solve the problem? In some cases it could. However, it does not get to the root cause of the problem, in other words what it is that’s causing the high temperature.
When this occurs, people are addressing what appears to be the big oscillating wheel within the mechanisms of this problem. The consequences are that in many cases they are not really getting to the true cause of the problem. They see the obvious sign to treat, identify an obvious solution and then act upon it.
The end result can be less than desirable with the problem not being solved.
Imagine that your car engine stopped completely and to solve the problem you simply started pushing it. Does that really solve the problem? Of course not, it treats the lack of movement but does not rectify the fact that it is out of fuel, the real cause of the problem.
The Satisficing Solution
The term ‘satisfice’ is defined in the Princeton University Online Database as:
Satisfice: (v) to decide on and pursue a course of action satisfying the minimum requirements to achieve a goal; ‘optimisation requires processes that are more complex than those needed to merely satisfice
We could expand on this to say that in the process of problem solving, ‘satisficing’ is behaviour which attempts to choose the first solution that is ‘good enough’ (that is satisfactory and sufficient), but which does not strive to solve the problem to its fullest. The list of options considered is not exhaustive. Only the more obvious options are considered in order find the first one that meets some minimum requirements.
The word satisfice was coined by Herbert Simon in 1957. Herbert Simon was a researcher in the fields of cognitive psychology, computer science, economics and philosophy. Simon said that people are only ‘rational enough’, and in fact relax their rationality when it is no longer required. He called this ‘bounded rationality’.
Simon believes that most people are only partly rational. He said that they are in fact emotional / irrational in the remaining part of their actions. He also said that ‘boundedly rational agents’ experience limits in formulating and solving complex problems, and in processing information. What he was trying to say is that in complex problem solving, people construct simplified models in which they capture the essential features of problems without all of the complexity. Individuals then apply rationale and logic within the boundaries of this simplified model.
The Minimum Solution
The pitfall for us is to take the ‘satisficing’ view in all cases. The ‘minimum solution’ approach has its application, but we should not always settle for a solution that just solves the problem. There are times when we might take the opportunity to find a solution that takes us to a new level of performance, particularly in the competitiveness of 21st century business.
On a continuum of minimum solution to perfect solution, the ‘satisficing’ approach targets the lower end.
Unlike the first two pitfalls, the desire for perfection is a characteristic we regard highly, though it may well be a significant disadvantage in problem solving and process improvement activities.
The Desire for Perfection
The desire for perfection is a driving force for continual improvement. It is a recognisable quality in some of the most successful people in the world today, and something I am sure we all strive to achieve.
However the desire for perfection can hamper problem solving when we do not take action to solve the problem until the perfect solution comes along. The existence of perfection may well be a fallacy. To say something is perfect is to say that it cannot be improved, that it is the best it can be.
Is that standard really achievable?
Not Taking Action Is The Problem
To not take action until perfection is obtained will prevent you from achieving anything, it paralyses you in some way.
I finished writing my first book (Process Mastery with Lean Six Sigma 1st Edition) during early 2004 and it was published and released during May 2004. The book took me about eighteen months to write, and consisted of 650 pages of technical information. File data showed that I completed more than 5,000 edits of the book and I am sure I must have read it 1,000 times; at least it felt like that.
In editing the book, a number of people who helped with the project read it more than once. Was it perfect? No. But we made a conscious decision to release it knowing it was not perfect. There was absolutely no way it could be and if we waited until that was achieved, we knew it would never be released. There was always something else I could include, or some other way to say the same thing.
Have you ever had reason to prepare a written assignment? I am sure you would have had the same experience. Right up to the last day before submission you made little changes just to make it better. When you submitted it did you think it could be even better? I would be surprised if you didn’t feel that way. I think its human nature.
Life is not about perfection!
The original version of Windows operating software was far from perfect. Many of us know that, much to our frustration at times. Microsoft released it knowing many of its faults yet it was enormously successful. Why? Well primarily because they actually had a product in the market place, faults and all. And they just continue to improve the product and provide updates and bug fixes.
Life is about the pursuit of perfection through constantly changing and improving. It is less about the achievement of perfection. Perfection is more a process than a destination. The solutions to our problems will never be perfect so it is better to do something to solve the problem, than do nothing at all.
On a continuum of minimum solution to perfect solution, this approach targets the upper end.
This is an extract from George Lee Sye’s Systematic Problem Solving for Managers. The tools and processes presented compliment the Lean and Six Sigma toolkits with a specific focus on event based business problems.