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Problem Solving

December 16th, 2009

It isn’t that they can’t see the Solution.  It is that they can’t see the Problem”, says G K Chesterton, noted English writer.

Ask any random group of executives in any company, on what is the first step in Problem Solving and they will all correctly and uniformly say that the first step will have to be problem definition.  Yet this is the step where most of them falter. As it happens in any process, when the first step of the process has not happened as it should, the errors grow exponentially from there on putting the entire outcome under jeopardy.

If we were to take the common problem of employee attrition, the solution will vary with the manner in which the problem is defined. We could define the problem from the perspective of attrition, and ask what the desirable percentage of attrition should be, or should we look at the link between the quantity of attrition and quality of attrition. The solutions that suggest themselves will be very different if we look at the problem from the perspective of retention.

We can look at this issue in the context of multiple problems and we will find that the perspective from which the definition emerges provides the key to the nature and quality of the solution. As a first example, let us take a well known anecdote from the 70s that involved the functioning of OTIS elevators in the Empire State Building.

In the US of the 70s, the Empire State Building was iconic and everything about it had to be perfect and world class. Therefore, it was understandable that there was considerable concern and trepidation among the estate management staff of the building when a number of complaints emanated from the users on the elevators being too slow. Let us go behind the scenes and visualize a problem solving team discussing this issue. The possible definitions of the problem could have been:

1. The elevators are moving too slowly

2. The users of the elevators  need to reach their floor quicker than they do now

3. The number of complaints from the customers on the time they spend in the elevators will have to be reduced

Consider the problem defined as the first statement above, viz., the elevators are moving too slowly. At that time, OTIS elevators were the world’s best, operating at the leading edge of elevator technology. Considering that their elevators were installed at one of the modern wonders of the world, it was highly improbable that they had given models that were second best on speed or quality.  In fact, when it was suggested to OTIS that they may want to consider speeding up the elevators, they simply laughed it away. In short, the problem when defined in this manner cannot be solved unless the customer (Empire State Building) invests millions of dollars in R&D along with OTIS to come up with elevators of higher speeds earlier than the evolving technologies could have permitted them to.

By defining the problem as users of the elevators need to reach their floor quicker than they do now, building administrators will have to look at alternate means for the customers to reach their designated floors. This could involve a few process changes.  Some of these changes include a few lifts operating only to higher floors, or lifts stopping in alternate (odd and even numbered) floors. This will invariably create some problems for few customers, and a bit of policing to ensure that people stick to the rules for elevator usage.

Lastly, the problem statement of reducing complaints from users of the elevators precludes doing any engineering marvels towards tweaking the speed of the elevators or introducing process changes on usage rules for the customers.  The problem is stated in a manner that will result in discussions that focus on the quantity and the nature of the complaints from the users of the elevators. Very quickly, one can visualize the group arriving at the conclusion that we have to work on the perception that the users have about spending unacceptably long times in the elevator. The area of attack is clearly narrowed down to managing the perception.

It will also emerge that people feel that the time in the elevator is inordinately long because they have very little to do while waiting for the elevator to reach their respective floors. If the perception of this time being “too long” can be changed, we may have an acceptable solution. As it is well known, this story ends with the building administration installing full length mirrors in all the elevators. The passengers become busy looking at themselves in the mirrors, and checking their appearances. Even the couple of minutes expended on this harmless activity tends to create the perception of the elevators having reached their floors that much quicker.

The lesson here is that the time spent in defining a problem is always well spent. The quality of the problem definition contributes directly to the quality of the solution. To conclude with an apocryphal story, one has heard about NASA spending billions of dollars to invent the ink for a ball point pen that can function in outer space. We are told the Russians neatly solved this problem by using a pencil. This could again be a case of solution coming from the problem being defined differently.

Keeping an eye on the ball

December 16th, 2009

Virender Sehwag once said in a TV interview that he always plays the ball, never the bowler. This is in keeping with what author Tim Galloway says in his book, “The Inner Game of Tennis”. He comments on champion players who always describe their best rallies in terms of where they saw the ball land, and how they planned and placed their returns at a chosen spot in the opponent’s court. They never ever talk about the movements of the opponents. Can we ever imagine Federer getting distracted by Nadal, or, in another era, have we seen Bjorn Borg allowing his legendary concentration to be affected by the antics of McEnroe? Winners are known to always focus on keeping their eye on the ball, not on the player at the other end.

At home, with friends, and especially at our workplaces, we do encounter “opponents” – folks who do not quite agree with what we have to say, or all that we do. How do we typically deal with such “disagreements”? Do we play the “ball” or the “opponent”? Watch many such encounters, and you will find that the eyes are, more often than not, on the opponent, and not on the ball. In cricket or tennis, this is a known recipe for loss. In real life encounters, we do not seem to have learnt the lessons as well as the sportsmen have learnt theirs.

At home, when a dissenting note is struck, or the son/daughter steps out of line, the parent will don the mantle of “historian” and list all the past misdemeanours in excruciating detail. The child’s behaviour in one incident will be blown up to draw a complete character sketch, and the consistency shown across many instances in the past will be thrown in as irrefutable proof. The idea is that we should be left with no doubt about the fault line in our character, as confirmed by this mountain of evidence thrown at you, detailed and chronologically arranged. All of this as an extrapolation of a single incident!

It is not very different at the workplace. When a colleague disagrees with us, our answer is laced with a patronizing tone, repeated explanations and even sarcasm towards the person who had the temerity to strike the discordant note. Loud voice and long explanations betray our anger and/or insecurity at being questioned. A single instance or reaction is found enough to voice an opinion on the person’s overall attitude, or to pass a judgment on the person. It takes a lot of restraint and maturity on the part of the (reacting) listener to confine his/her comments to the event on hand, and to divorce ourselves from the person embroiled in the situation.

Whether at home or at work, imagine a situation where as soon as a disagreement arises, we disregard the person who voiced it, and focus on the subject at hand.

We must do the following three actions methodically and faithfully:

1. Listen, with our “inner ear”

2. Paraphrase the disagreement, irrespective of how unpalatable it may be to us, or how foolish we think the question is

3. Address the answer on the basis of the subject matter details, facts, data, information; no judgments, no opinions; no customization of the answer to be directed to the questioner

When we have done this, in the true style of a professional sportsperson, we would have played the “ball’, and not the “player”. That is a sure way to win the game!

Whose company is it, really?

March 20th, 2009

In an article in ET last week, Sudhakar Ram, the CMD of Mastek has used the background of the Satyam issue to ask two pertinent questions: on whose behalf is a company governed? Whose company is it, really?

He goes on to argue that since the shareholders, the board members and the employees share at best a fickle loyalty to the company they are associated with, any company really belongs to nobody. The need to keep a company running, in his opinion, is a kind of societal responsibility in order to help the organization realize its potential.

Management texts and theory have already gone overboard discussing the definition and scope of organizations and who actually should own and control these organisms. A couple of weeks ago, the venerable Jack Welch has joined debate by calling the tendency of organizations to pander to shareholder value as “sheer stupidity”. Sudhakar himself falls back on the all encompassing term “stakeholders” which is as tired as clichés go.

I think the interesting angle to this discussion is on superimposing Sudhakar’s argument to the individual. At the individual level we have been propagating the concept of “ME, Inc.,” pushing every person’s imagination to as far as it can go towards becoming all that he or she most wants to be. In that respect the ownership of “ME, Inc.,” beyond reproach is clearly with the individual. As the famous rhetorical motivator’s questions go: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

With the ownership issue settled, let us focus on the more important point about why should a company be allowed to stay afloat? We have to turn the question around and ask why we should work on making an individual successful. Coincidentally, the answer to both the questions is the same: to realize their potential. The aggregate of individual potential raises the group, the society, the country and all of mankind. The pitfall of having even one rotten apple in a basket of apples is already well known.

This article on corporate governance hence triggers this thought on how each one of us need to engage with every person we come across in such a manner as to help him or her realize their potential. In management parlance, the formal nomenclature is coaching or mentoring. We could even start with simple advising. The conversation needs to establish that there is unrealized potential and then we make the first moves to help them realize either through us or through others we know and can point them to.

As Richard Bach has pointed out, the only reason a human being is still alive on earth is because he/she has yet not completely accomplished the mission for which he/she was sent here. All of us have a tremendous responsibility on this count.