Tag Archives: problem solving

What’s New?

Problem solving at S-II works really well as long as we have solved the problem before. Elliott’s problem solving schema related to states of thinking –
S-I – Declarative (trial and error)
S-II – Cumulative (best practices)
S-III – Serial (root cause analysis, single system)
S-IV – Parallel (multi-system analysis)

S-II – Cumulative state is one of connection. Given a problem, a person with S-II capability can see the pattern causing the problem AND only has to match the pattern to an existing (documented) solution. This is the world of best practices. Best practices work well as long as the problem is one we have solved before. Forty percent of the population can effectively use best practices to solve problems (which is why “best practices” are so popular in management literature).

But, best practices are of little use if the problem is new (we have never solved it before).

S-III – Serial state is one of cause and effect. This is where NEW problems are solved. And, only 4-7 percent of the general population can effectively engage in root cause analysis. COVID-19 presents itself as a problem in all four states of thinking. Initially, COVID-19 was characterized as something we have seen before and could be dealt with using best practices (treat it like the flu). When it became apparent that the contagion rate was higher and the (yet to be defined) mortality rate was higher, the medical community responded with trial and error problem solving (S-I), recommending social distancing, initially no masks, then masks. Trial and error solutions became best practices and now the world is mask-wearing (go figure). But, root cause analysis (S-III) will provide the only inroads to a lasting solution (vaccine).

S-IV – Multi-system analysis will confront the longer term problems of vaccine distribution (capacities and priorities, medical systems) along with economic impacts (economic systems) and social behavior (social systems).

How much trouble do we create for ourselves when we mix up an S-I solution to an S-IV problem?

Am I Capable?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been an avid reader of Jaques’ books for quite some time, and I have a question: most of what you say is to help managers and HR workers to find and hire the correct people.

But what about someone who is creating a company (my case)? How can I accurately measure my own capability, and, therefore, structure my company correctly so that its complexity doesn’t surpass my own level of thinking, while also hiring subordinates exactly one stratum below, in the case of the first hire(s)?

I would be very much interested since I’m having a hard time to be objective trying to evaluate myself.

Response:
How does the song go? “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”

First, your interest in assessing your own cognitive capacity will almost always lead you astray. Don’t attempt to assess yourself, assess the work.

Second, a start-up organization has a different focus than other, more mature organizations. There are so many missing pieces and fewer resources to work with. The start-up has a quick timeline to death.

So, my first question is always, what’s the work? As you describe the work, what is the decision making and problem solving necessary? More specifically, what is the level of decision making and level of problem solving required to make a go as a start-up?

Here are some other necessary questions for your start-up.

  • What is the (market) problem you are trying to solve?
  • Does your product or service solve that market problem?
  • Can you price your product or service high enough to allow for a profit?
  • Is your market big enough to provide enough volume for your product or service? Is your market big enough for a business or just big enough for a hobby?

The first focus for every start-up is sales. Can you get your product or service into the market place and please find a customer to buy it?

In the beginning, the level of problem solving is very tactical. Can you make it and will someone buy it? That’s about it. That is why there are so many budding entrepreneurs out there. That is also why so many fail. They cannot get their company to the next level of problem solving.

Once you have a sustained momentum of sales, the next level is all about process. You see, if you can create a sustained momentum of revenue, you will also create competitors. The next level is about process. Can you produce your product or service faster, better, cheaper than your competitor? This is a different level of decision making, a different level of problem solving. It is precisely this level that washes out most start-ups.

So, focus on the work. Do you have the (cognitive) capability to effectively make the decisions and solve the problems that are necessary at the level of work in your organization? Stay out of your own head and focus on the work.

BTW, we have only described the first two levels, there are more.

Structure and Creativity – Part II

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

This continues my response to the following question –

Question:
In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Response:
It is easy to fear organizational calcification. Much of management literature rails against terminology about command and control, even the subtle reporting relationship reeks iron fists and thumbs of oppression. This is why our understanding of functional organizational structure is so important. And important to you because of your interest, mandate that an organization be creative.

I define work narrowly looking at two things, decision making and problem solving. This discussion is to firmly attach creativity to decision making and problem solving, within the confines of a structure that eschews rigidity.

First, an exercise, in creativity. I ask a group of student within a 60-second period to name (write down) things that are round, as many as possible in 60-seconds. That’s the goal. You would assume those that name 30 are more creative than those that name six. I immediately get a question, “do you mean round and flat like a coin or round like a sphere?” I say, “there are no rules, no restrictions, it’s up to your own definition.” There is no structure to the exercise save the limit of time.

Inevitably, the clock winds down and most participants have a list of six to eight and most have a look of frustration on their face that they performed so dismally. I ask for sample responses –

  • ball
  • coin
  • planet
  • wheel
  • manhole cover
  • marble
  • watchface

Stop, time’s up!

Remember, the goal is to be as creative as possible and name as many as possible. I say, “ball. What about a tennis ball? A baseball? A basketball?”

“Wait, that’s cheating,” the group responds. I smile.

Here is the point. Instead of instructions where there is no structure, let me create a structure that guides you to be more creative.

Name as many coins that are round –

  • penny
  • nickel
  • dime
  • quarter
  • 50-cent piece
  • silver dollar
  • gold dubloon

Name as many planets that are round –

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Jupiter
  • Earth
  • Saturn

Name as many balls that are round –

  • tennis ball
  • baseball
  • basketball
  • bowling ball
  • golf ball
  • volleyball
  • cricket ball
  • soccer ball

The more structure in the assignment, the more creative, the more possibilities. This is a concept called idea fluency.

I need you to shift your understanding (not change, just shift) about organizational structure where we create working relationships between people where they engage in work using the fullest extent of their capability to make decisions and solve problems.

Elliott’s model helps us understand that there are different levels of decision making and different levels of problem solving. It is incumbent on every manager to understand those levels and engage the fullest capability of their team members in the work at hand.

Placing accountability for team output at the feet of the manager dramatically shifts managerial behavior to create more productive and creative working environments.

Permanent and Temporary

What changes have become permanent and what changes are only temporary? As we live in this science-fiction movie, we think, at some point, the movie will be over, we can walk into the sunshine and everything will be normal again.

It is too easy to think that things are temporary, when some things will never return to the way they were. So, some things require only a short-lived adjustment, an accommodation. AND, some things will require new habits.

If it is temporary, we can live with a small discomfort, an awkward way. If the change is permanent, we better figure out a better way and get really good at dealing with it.

Blame Game

It is important to understand the problem. Even more important to understand the cause of the problem.

Many people confuse the cause of the problem with blame. Blame, no matter how well placed, rarely gets you closer to the solution, even creates distraction that prevents forward steps.

In what way can we fix (mitigate, prevent) the problem is a more useful question.

Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Yesterday, someone asked me, as we move from shelter-in-place to a re-open of the economy, what should a CEO think about? Of course, there is work to be done, and we will bring people back to do that work, but what should the CEO think about?

  • What does my market environment look like in three months time, one year’s time, two years time? This includes market demand, regulations, capital requirements, availability of labor and technology.
  • What should my company look like in three months time, one year’s time, two years time?
  • What are the internal functions necessary to support my product or service in that market demand?
  • Inside each function, what is the level of decision making and problem solving?
  • What roles do I need to make those decisions and solve those problems?
  • Do I have people on my team who can effectively play those roles?

There are two concepts embedded in these questions.
Necessity
Levels of work (levels of decision making, levels of problem solving)

Necessity
If your company considered the purchase of a $100,000 machine, and it was NOT necessary, would you buy it? That same decision has to be made about the roles inside the company. Now, is an opportunity to examine your organizational design and ask, is this necessary?

Levels of Work
Most CEOs do not think about the work necessary to make the product or provide the service. Understanding the level of decision making and the level of problem solving are specific clues to the talent you need. Now, is an opportunity to examine the levels of work and ask, do I have the people on my team who can effectively make those decisions and solve those problems.

Value of Advice

Rory would not be deterred. “But, I am young, and, you are experienced. I have listened to you before and your advice has been helpful.”

“I am flattered,” I replied. “But, better to clarify your own understanding of the problem than to take my word for it. My advice is worth no more than you are able to make of it.”

Stuck in a Dilemma

“I am stuck in a dilemma,” Rory explained. “It’s a quandary, so I have come for your advice.”

“And, you think I can help you?” I replied.

“You always have before.”

“I think you are mistaken. I can help you clarify your thinking, but as for my advice, it is only good for me. I can only tell you what I know based on my experience. What you need to know will be based on your experience. I can help you understand your experience, but, your problem, your dilemma will still be yours.”

How Was I Supposed to Know?

“And, what was your contribution to the problem,” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Mason responded. “I didn’t even know about it for two days.”

“As a manager, you always have contribution. The only way to an effective solution is make sure that you are not part of the problem. So, what was your contribution to the problem?”

“I’m still not sure what you mean,” Mason replied.

“Let’s see,” I started. “How about these, for contribution –

  • You put pressure on the sales team to find new customers.
  • You designed the production process without a provision for expediting an order, including notifications should an order be expedited.
  • You designed a production process where expedited orders derail current production output.
  • You designed a min/max for raw inventory, with re-order thresholds that allowed for out-of-stock.

“You can stop,” Mason protested. “How was I supposed to know this would happen?”

“Exactly. How were you supposed to know?”

The Problem We Name

“You said you had one problem, but you were able to tell me several more,” I started. “Here’s the list –

  • An upset customer.
  • A RUSH order that delayed other orders.
  • A rogue salesperson that went around protocol.
  • A quality inspection process that wasn’t followed.
  • A shortage of raw materials with a lead time.

“Yep, I think you got them all,” Mason shook his head.

“And, I asked you which problem you were going to solve, knowing that everyone on your team, and everyone on the sales team sees the problem in a different way. Even the customer sees the problem in a different way.”

“And, I was just thinking last week that everything was under control,” Mason surmised.

“So, which problem are you going to solve? You see, each stakeholder sees the problem differently because they see the solution (that they want) differently. Each stakeholder would name the problem differently because they each see a different solution. The problem we name is the problem we solve.”