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Problem Solving

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.

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