Problem Solving or Dissolving

In any type of system, there will be problems.  In complex systems, complex problems tend to show up.  Unfortunately, our invdividual and collective approach to problem solving is highly analytic in nature.

We decompose problems into their elemental parts as if they were math problems.  We solve each part in isolation and then try to put the parts back together again in Humpty Dumpty fashion.  We even get really clever and put brackets around some parts of the problem to ensure that we solve certain parts of the problem first before other parts.

And we’re successful (or so we think), in fact, we’re really good at this (most times).  We end up with a “best practices for problem solving” and some of us go on to have illustrious careers peddling solutions for solving problems.  In our performance evaluations, we are scored extremely high because we’ve developed a knack for “problem solving”.

But are we really successful?   Has the problem really gone away or we just masking it with some wonderful masking tape?  A classic example of problem solving in organizations is this:

We have quality issues.  Our product is not as good as it should be so let’s see what we can do.  Ah, we got it, let’s solve our quality problems by more quality assurance.  Let’s inspect the end product more often.  In fact, let’s hire  inspectors who will make sure that we find our quality issues before our customers do.

This in fact, does (hopefully) solve the problem.  The end product is better and customers are happier but the fact of the matter is that without that solution in place, there is still a big problem, a quality problem and a social/behavioral problem might have just showed up right behind it.

Let me offer you something better.  About a year ago, I came across an approach to problems by Russ Ackoff  described as “problem dissolving” that described how my outlook on problems had shifted over time.  I believe it was from one of his lectures on Youtube but unfortunately I can’t find it right now.  However, I will encourage readers to look him up if you don’t know who he is.  As opposed to problem solving which doesn’t address the problem itself but just prevents it from being exposed, problem dissolving is all about getting rid of the problem.

To get rid of the problem, we need to move from analysis to synthesis.  We need to move from dissecting systems into their component parts and fixing parts in silos to looking at the system in its entirety, understanding how its component parts interact and then identifying solutions that make the problems disappear.

(It’s not the thrust of this particular post on how to identify problems but rather shift our focus to a place where we’re really interested in problem removal).

So back to our earlier example of quality.  What if we identified that the problem was that workers were always rushed and had unrealistic deadlines so the quality of their work suffered?  Then problem dissolving could go something like this:

We as management are going to do a better job of strategic planning and communicating of what our commitments are.  We are going to be transparent with all of our teams so they can also plan and make the necessary adjustments whenever they need to.  We are going to focus on reducing stress and long working hours and thus the everyone will be able to do a better job.

Walk the gemba, understand your system and start redesigning to dissolve the problems that are preventing you from being as successful as you could be.

(This doesn’t only apply to your work life.  Try problem dissolving in your personal life too!)