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How to approach "solving" problems

A couple blogs I read mentioned the same Russell Ackoff way of looking at problems and how they are typically solved. This apocryphal story from James Lather gets us going: 4 Ways to Solve a Problem

A man you know is hungry.  There are 4 ways you could solve his problem:

  1. Slap him about a bit. This will take his mind of it.  Hunger gone, problem solved. 
  2. Give him a fish to eat.  Hunger gone, problem solved. 
  3. Give him a fishing rod and show them how to fish.  Hunger gone, problem solved. 
  4. Develop a first world infrastructure with trawlers, freezers, distribution centres, corner stores and fish fingers.  Hunger gone, problem solved.

Ackoff’s four ways of looking at problems parallel these “solutions”:

  1. You can absolve the problem: ignore it and hope it goes away.  
  2. You can resolve the problem: fix it for the time being, possibly by doing the same things that have worked in the past.  
  3. You can solve the problem: possibly going deeper and do something that creates a more optimal solution to the problem.  
  4. Or you can dissolve the problem: change the system so that the problem no longer arises.
Think about the idea of “firefighting” that managers find themselves doing. They often find themselves fighting the same fires – or the same sorts of fires – over and over again.  They resolve the problem in the moment, but then it comes up again in different ways and in different situations. But it is the same. If the business leader could dissolve the problem, they could move to a better level of performance AND break out of their Groundhog Day life.

A slightly more entertaining version of this comes from Squire to the Giants in his post So, you think you’ve got a problem! where he uses these concepts to comment on some of the current discussions in the political spheres.  He also includes some direct quotes from a collection of Ackoff’s writings on the topic.



Grit is not just the stuff that tears apart your bike chain

Many people have talked about Angela Duckworth and her book, Grit: the power of passion and perseverance. As I have yet to read the book, I was happy to get a note from a friend with a high-level summary from Inc. Magazine, 11 Signs You Have the Grit You Need to Succeed

Grit is that “extra something” that separates the most successful people from the rest. It’s the passion, perseverance, and stamina that we must channel to stick with our dreams until they become a reality.

And the 11 signs are (with more detail at the article – and likely in the book):

  1. You have to make mistakes, look like an idiot, and try again, without even flinching.
  2. You have to fight when you already feel defeated.
  3. You have to make the calls you’re afraid to make.
  4. You have to keep your emotions in check.
  5. You have to trust your gut.
  6. You have to give more than you get in return.
  7. You have to lead when no one else follows.
  8. You have to meet deadlines that are unreasonable and deliver results that exceed expectations.
  9. You have to focus on the details even when it makes your mind numb. 
  10. You have to be kind to people who have been rude to you.
  11. You have to be accountable for your actions, no matter what.

The funny thing when I look through this list and see some of the opposites in my own personality, I wonder “now what?”  Does this mean I am not gritty enough?  No, I think the idea is to point in a direction that will create more of this characteristic.

[Photo: “Grit” by KylaBorg]

All about the policies, really?

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on How to Revitalize U.S. Manufacturing.  Unfortunately, it is centered entirely around governmental policies and regulation to shift more and more manufacturing* to be done domestically, instead of importing goods from elsewhere.  (This same applies to any country or region concerned about their manufacturing base.) 

Why do companies shift manufacturing to other locales?  As the article acknowledges, the biggest factor has to do with cost – often the cost-per-part, instead of the total cost (additional shipping costs, additional inventory costs, etc.)  

But why? Why can’t manufacturers in the U.S. produce goods more effectively, so that the cost logic doesn’t force their hand? We have plenty of intelligent people who have studied industrial engineering or who use Theory of Constraints and Lean and other approaches.  We must be able to produce the same goods with the same raw materials – so the cost equation has to relate to the overall operating expenses and inventory required to make that happen.  

* The article focuses on manufacturing, but I see the same logic used when off-shoring services too.

End of the year syndrome

End of the month syndrome is unfortunately familiar common in manufacturing businesses: a large portion of the monthly shipments happen in the final days of the month.  It’s not because customers don’t want the products earlier, but because they are driven by competing needs.  On the one hand, they want to keep costs under control which might mean less overtime and lower pressure to get products out the door.  But then there is also the need to meet customer needs and meet the demands of business to show consistent bookings each month (we don’t get paid until we ship).  This often drives a different set of behaviors – do whatever it takes, including overtime or other “expensive” measures.   Similar effects happen in supply chain and retail — often driven by similar thinking (discounts to drive unit sales, even though they don’t drive profit).

Of course this kind of thing can happen on other cycles: end-of-quarter or even end-of-year.  Here is a great example of this phenomenon from today’s Wall Street Journal: Airbus Tackles Its Procrastination Problem: says

Plane maker had to work round-the-clock the past two Decembers to meet yearly jet-delivery targets

Reading the article further, it isn’t just the last two Decembers – it has been several years where they’ve had to significantly push production in the last year of the month to hit the numbers.  And even more evidence of the syndrome is that production is much lower in January and the first quarter of the year than towards the end of the year.  The article also makes it clear that there is a business need to be more predictable: shipping consistently each month, rather than the big ramp at the end of the year.  

How to overcome the problem?  The general direction is to find a solution that allows companies to meet the needs of spending wisely AND shipping on time.  

Never say "I know"

Reading Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, the opening to the article The Real Fear Is When We All Fear Alike caught my eye.

It isn’t what you worry about that hurts…. It is what you know for sure.

There is a set of principles in Theory of Constraints that come from Eli Goldratt’s last writings on the idea of having a “full and meaningful life”.  These are the Four Pillars of TOC: core beliefs embedded within much of the way Eli Goldratt – and anyone involved in TOC – approach the world.

  1. Inherent simplicity: Reality is simple and harmonious.
  2. Every conflict can be removed: Don’t accept conflicts as given.
  3. People are good: Avoid blaming. There is always a Win-Win.
  4. Never say, “I know”: Every situation can be substantially improved

And that last element is what caught my eye in the WSJ. The author was talking about financial markets and the assumptions that investors make about the way markets are behaving.  If everyone believes one thing but discovers a different reality, it often causes major disruptions in markets.  

But the same thing happens in business, families, or just about anywhere else.  If “I know” something, I am not inclined to check for holes in my logic.  I’m not inclined to think a situation could change.  I’m inclined to think past performance WILL be an indicator of future performance.  I block myself – we block ourselves collectively – to thinking and seeing different ways of doing things.

Clarity over Coffee, what?

Graham drinking "coffee"
The people at Personal Kanban posted an article that referenced “coffee” that has been sitting in my queue, waiting for an opportune moment to comment.

However, being a personal effectiveness aficionado, it isn’t about how much fun one gets from coffee.  It’s the reason that many people claim to drink coffee — to get that boost from the caffeine.  But, really, in most work these days, are people dragging mid-day because they don’t have enough caffeine?  Or are they dragging because it isn’t clear what they are supposed to be doing?  

If you find yourself dragging, and the coffee is merely a delicious distraction, maybe the problem is a little more interesting: lack of clarity!

Clarity > Coffee

Studies show anxiety diminishes and success rates soar when abstract goals – the very nature of knowledge work – are clarified, when they are transformed into concrete and attainable steps. Such is the case when we visualize work on a Personal Kanban. Especially for knowledge workers, getting all those amorphous tasks out of your head and easily visualized on a board demystifies your priorities, your tradeoffs, and makes work manageable. 

What is more motivating, being told “go do this”, or understanding that “this” will bring some new value to the organization?  Or simply that “this” has a clear connection to the bigger needs of the organization?

So, sit back (with your coffee), and try to figure out why you are doing what you are doing, not just what/how.  I find this is a much better motivation, than my mother’s old chestnut, “because I said so.”

[Photo credit: That’s my boy!]

Swimming in a lake, or rowing down the river

Camping 08

People like to be busy.  It seems like it is built into our DNA.  A recent post from Joitske Hulseboch has me thinking about this again, Busy is the new smoking and she links to an earlier post with some advice, Only suckers are busy (in Dutch – thank you Google translation) by Annemiek Leclaire.

There is a strong need in our culture to “contribute.”  For many people, this gets translated into doing something.  And for people who manage other people, this gets translated into some version of “if you aren’t busy, I can give you something to keep you busy.”  And many organizations have a real or implied threat: if you aren’t busy, you are likely to be outsourced / fired / made redundant.  And what are you supposed to do instead of “be busy”? Sit around and “do nothing” while waiting for that key piece of information, or that key activity to start?

This sounds like a classic internal conflict: On the one hand, find things to do in order to always appear to be contributing (and keep your job).  On the other had, be available and ready in order to support the bigger picture in your organization.  People have a strong tendency to fall towards the “keep busy” side of things because of those underlying assumptions about job security.  And surely, doing something has to be better than doing nothing.

However, one of the side effects of the “keep busy” side of this is that it means people are not available when they are really needed to contribute to a key activity.  Particularly in the context of knowledge work, it is very difficult for people around you to know whether you are engaged in a key business activity, or if you are doing something of lower priority to fill time – like writing a blog post.  And if people aren’t available for a key activity, that key activity ends up takes longer due to all the waiting.  And the waiting and restarting and then waiting again for someone else often generates errors or mistakes and rework.  All of this ends up extending the overall effort by massive amounts.

Improvement programs that focus on fixing the work process – optimizing the activities themselves – often don’t create that much of an overall improvement because they miss the time lost due to flubbed handoffs, waiting, and rework. This time is significant – on the order of 25% or more of the duration of a project.

The improvements that have a lot of success here tend to emphasize getting the work out in the open: shared workspaces, visual boards, kanban, etc.  These create a collective understanding of the work and what needs to be done on a regular basis.  I find the exercise of learning what people are really doing to be instructive: often even the managers don’t have a good picture of everything that people are doing.  Even for solo contributors or self-employed consultants, having that visual display of what is happening can be helpful in prioritizing and getting “busy” on the right things. 

An analogy:  We often operate as if we have a large lake to swim in: many places to go and things to do.  But in reality, in any kind of project, we are rowing down a river to meet an objective.  The group must row in the same direction and seek to remove barriers as they arise, or the project doesn’t get done.  Activities required will present themselves as the river flows – there will be times of intensity and times of calm.  Of course, the analogy breaks down because those times of intensity will be different, depending on the participants’ roles.  

[Photo: “stream at Lake Dennison” by Jack Vinson – me!]

Focus on the processes, not the tools

I see a lot of projects within business support organizations that look like “implement this tool.”  And then the organization is surprised when the project takes much longer than expected and the tool doesn’t get used to the extent expected.  

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The organization is often focused on the tool, rather than the larger purpose and how the work gets done.

This comes up nicely in an article from Davide “Folletto” Casali, The Three Speeds of Collaboration: Tool Selection and Culture Fit:

Choosing the right tool is a weird thing to do, because it’s at the same time the most important choice and the least important choice you can do. It’s a paradox because without a tool you can’t collaborate – and mind that: a tool isn’t necessarily a software tool – but at the same time if you have clear what you are trying to do you might find yourself choosing something that isn’t even software, or isn’t even specific for collaboration.

The article focuses on collaboration tools, but remove the collaboration concepts and apply your favorite job that software should do. The idea still make sense.  The tools have to fit with the way the organization works – both the formal and informal processes for getting things done.  Has the tool been constructed with assumptions that fit with the way things are done in your organization?

I still go back to the Theory of Constraints “questions for technology” related to this conversation. (“Technology” doesn’t just mean software, it could be anything new and different – like putting bigger wheels on a mountain bike.)  The questions go along the lines of this:

  1. What is the power of the new technology? 
    What’s the big idea? Why is it so great? But also, where is it expected to fit? Where doesn’t it fit? Related to the Casali article, what are the assumptions behind the technology?
  2. What current limitation or barrier (that exists today) does the new technology eliminate or vastly reduce? 
    This is a classic TOC phrase, but the idea: What problem does it solve? How would the value proposition of the organization change if that problem were to go away?
  3. What policies, norms and behavior patterns are used today to bypass the limitation?
    The limitation is there.  What do we do because of it? What policies, practices, structures are in place because of the limitation?   
  4. What policies, norms and behavior patterns should be used once the new technology is in place?
    Using new technology in the “old way” will likely not unlock the full value of the technology. If the limitation goes away, wouldn’t many of the behaviors and policies no longer apply?  Do we still need to do monthly financial close if we have real-time data in our financial systems?
  5. In view of the above, what changes/additions to the new technology should be introduced?
    I love this question. Now that we understand the situation into which this the technology is applied, what must be added/changed/removed to make it even better? This could be core in the technology, or it could be something about how it is applied to the problem at hand.
  6. How to cause the change?
    How to fit the new technology into the overall organization?

The Questions for Technology are nicely discussed by Eli Schragenheim in this video conversation with Christian Hohmann from last year.  Schragenheim was involved in the original development of the questions for technology in the book Necessary but not Sufficient (my latest review).

Innovation Thinking Methods

Innovation thinkingI received a review copy of Osama A Hashmi’s upcoming book, Innovation Thinking Methods for the Modern Entrepreneur.  Subtitle: Disciplines of thought that can help you rethink industries and unlock 10x better solutions.  It is to be released on 23 March 2016.

It’s a short book, meant to be a quick read and guide to start thinking about thinking.  Or maybe, more accurately, to get people doing something differently about thinking.  (And do so while drinking coffee – a frequent side joke throughout the book.  It’s hard to fault a guy who likes coffee so much.)  The tone is light, but insistent – new ideas don’t come about with the kind of thinking that got us where we are now, to paraphrase Einstein.

What is “innovation thinking?”  It’s in the subtitle and first chapter – creating 10x better solutions.  In my mind it is ways of thinking that challenge the status quo. Challenge the assumption that small tweaks are all that you can do.  Challenge the belief that the problem is already “solved” or maybe that it “can’t be solved.”  He also explicitly talks about Innovation Thinking as different from incremental improvements and small changes that have become de rigueur in the startup community (i.e. Lean Startup).*

Hashmi uses the book to describe 20 innovation thinking methods – briefly introducing each of them and then providing some examples. The methods ranging from adopting different mindsets and points of view, to framing sentences and techniques, to concepts borrowed from other disciplines. Most of the examples draw from the technology world where Hashmi works, though the methods apply to any industry.

A number of the methods resonated deeply for me in connection with the work I do in Theory of Constraints, particularly the Thinking Processes.  The surface of many problems are just the visible symptoms of an underlying system(s).  That system consists of many things – the physical world, the policies and practices of the industry, the history of what came before, etc.  As I read the book, it struck me that many of the thinking methods seek to understand the system at a deeper level.  Changes at the deeper level of the system will have much more significant impact – and are often harder for others to replicate, particularly if they have built themselves into the existing system.  I liked how these methods give additional means for digging deeper or trying to understand how the system generates the current effects. 

Hashmi doesn’t spend time describing the theory or diving into the supporting research for the various thinking methods – this is both an advantage and disadvantage of the book.  The advantage is that it keeps the book short and fast, and helps Hashmi maintain his conversational tone throughout.  The reader can pick as many or as few of the methods as they want to try them or explore further.  The disadvantage for a curious guy like me is that I want to track down those references.  Over some coffee, of course.

* Hashmi tries to walk a line here.  Lean (and other) methods are not wrong – they can be quite beneficial in the right settings – it’s just that in the context of “innovative thinking” the way these methods are employed do not create 10x changes.  And of course I have to say that it really depends on how people apply any of these approaches to thinking.  Theory of Constraints and Lean can be used to help people think very differently about their world and their situations to create very different results.  I also agree if the goal is incremental improvement, that is all one will get, no matter how they are thinking.  

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