Are you thinking about solving the problem, or simply fixing it?

What is the first thing that comes to mind when we see the problem? Most of us immediately jump in to start solving it. While this might appear to be a natural instinct and a logical choice for some simple problems, reality could often be otherwise, especially for complex problems. If we don’t know enough about genesis of that problem, we might spend countless hours ‘fixing’ it, and yet hardly make any meaningful headway. Or, we might fix it in the short-term, but might not solve it in the long-run, i.e. address the root-cause behind it. For all we know, the first thing we do might actually be the worst!

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions” – Einstein

There is an interesting story about the famous Jefferson Memorial. A few years back, for no apparent reason, the monument was found decaying significantly more than other monuments. At the initial inspection, it seemed like it was acid rain or some such thing, but on detailed inspection, and after asking a series of ‘why’ questions, the root-cause was found to be completely unrelated to the original problem. Here’s roughly how the chain of thoughts proceeded:

Problem: Jefferson Memorial was found crumbling more rapidly then other similar monuments.

Question:Why was Jefferson Memorial crumbling faster than other monuments? Was it due to acid rain?

Answer: It was not acid rain. The monument was being cleaned both inside and outside twice a week with strong cleaning soaps. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that erosion was being caused by soap solution reacting with exhaust from jet fuel from the airport across the river.

Question: Why was the monument being cleaned twice with such strong cleaning agents?

Answer: Because there were lots of bird droppings, which were spoiling the monument, and to keep the monument clean, they had to wash it frequently.

Question: Why there were such high numbers of birds at this memorial compared to other memorials?

Answer: Because there were very high numbers of spiders at the memorial which birds like to eat!

Question: Why there were such high numbers of spiders at this monument?

Answer: Because there were a large number of midges (tiny aquatic inspects) that these spiders love to feast on.

Question: Why were there so many midges at this memorial?

Answer: Because midges were coming out for sex (yes, literally!) at dusk and were being attracted by light which was caused by the floodlights that were being put on just before the dusk – to make the memorial beautiful for the tourists! They would promptly die thus triggering the whole food chain.

So, that was the key. This was a long-lead food chain that had eventually turned into a problem. While the initial possible solutions included building a huge glass cover around the memorial, or even moving the airport far away (both of which seemed like very costly and complex solutions), eventually National Park Service delayed putting on the floodlights by one hour which led to midges population going down by 90% and the food chain was broken, and the problem was solved.

You can watch a nice short video on this from Juran Institute here: 



This is of course a great application of the Five Whys that was originally developed as a problem-solving tool by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of Japanese industrial revolution, at Toyota and became part of the Toyota Product System. Over the last several decades, several of the principles, tools and practices of TPS have found its way beyond automobile manufacturing, and are now generally considered as a vital problem-solving process for pretty much anything.

So, why this blog post?

Because the subsequent process of initiating required change is not as easy or straight-line as it appears to be.

Surprisingly, we still continue to see knee-jerk response to ill-understood problems that end up paying just a lip service to the real issues. Invariably, the 4th or the 5th why lands us into an unfamiliar territory – another function in an organization that we don’t have control over. In case of Jefferson Memorial problem, the solution involved getting in pigeon expert and then spider expert, and so on. Solving the problem effectively requires people to muster up all their courage and go over the fence and work with stakeholders to change something in their way of working – something easier said than done! There is a nice story of how a mousetrap, meant to be problem just for the mouse ends up being being a problem for everyone else but the mouse himself! It is a nice and simple illustration of how smaller causes cascade into bigger effects, and how trivializing them in the initial stages only ends up growing them into a monster problem that one is simply not able to handle. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and if only we could rewind the problem and get another chance to start it all over.

In my experience, apart from the ignorance about the power of a simple problem-solving tool such as five whys, when it still fails to find an effective solution, it is generally because it requires two different set of skills –

  1. the first is about doing a series of deductive reasoning steps to keep double-clicking on what is being presented as a cause till everyone agrees on the root-cause behind the problem. This needs smart thinking, ability to go beyond the obvious and build and test hypothesis that uncover more deeper issues.
  2. the second part is all about actually influencing people in another part of the organization to go and fix it. Invariably, the reaction is – “that’s not my problem”. In a way, this is like the Butterfly Effect – the flap of a butterfly wing sets off changes in a system causing a chain of events that eventually manifest in something very big in a completely different time and place. Solving this problem, then, is significantly difficult because it requires establishing the entire chain of events that led to the current problem. Given that these events are likely to be spread out in time (e.g., decisions made over time) and space (e.g., different functions in a organization), no one is likely to own them individually.

So, how do you go across organizational silos and ask people to take some preventive action that really solves the problem they have probably not even heard of! In general, making someone agree that they need to change something is hard enough.

I have found the following approach that works in many situations –

  1. First, get all the data. In the absence of data, we are all only conjecturing, and as creative that might be, we need to back it up with objective data to eventually make meaningful and better decisions.
  2. Whenever possible, involve other affected groups or individuals in the process at the earliest. No point second-guessing on their behalf.
  3. If they haven’t been part of the original root-cause analysis, instead of shooting off an email to them asking them ‘what’ is to be done, walk them through the entire process and ask them for validation. At this point, get an agreement on the problem without telling them your view of the solution.
  4. Once there is an agreement on the problem, half the battle is already won. Now start asking them how would they solve it.
  5. An ideal situation is when their solution is same as yours. But that might not always happen. If their solution is different than yours, first understand what is it that they are telling you, and why do they think that will solve the problem.
  6. At this stage, if you are not convinced of their approach, let them know so, and share what your original root-cause analysis exercise has come up with. The idea is not to confront them, but rather present another perspective and to compare and contrast what is better way to address the issue.
  7. If there is a toss-up between these two approaches, it might make sense to go with their solution rather than yours for two primary reasons – they are the primary function owners and hence expected to have better subject-matter expertise and professional judgment than you, and secondly if you go with their perspective, you are likely to get a better buy-in in the long run.
  8. However, if there is a deadlock, and quite often that is the case, one has to be accommodating. A very natural response is to go up the reporting chain and push for our solution, but I haven’t seen that is very productive in the long run. I would give benefit of doubt to the concerned group or the function and ask them to try for a reasonable and mutually agreed upon period of time till we see if the problem is resolved effectively. If it is not getting resolved, it’s time to once again get back to the drawing board.
  9. Hopefully you have an agreement by now on a solution that actually addresses the core issue and solves it. God bless you.
  10. Always remember – today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems. While you might have solved the problem, in the bargain you might have inadvertently triggered-off another problem that is waiting to be manifest somewhere else in the organization in due course of time. So, keep your eyes and ears open if any new issues are reported – it is quite likely that they are regression effect of the current solution!

In today’s world, solving a problem effectively is as much a hard process as it is an individual and sociological change – affected people need to understand not only the required changes, but also the reasons behind it and adapt accordingly, which is more often than not, very discomforting. In a way, one can even argue that this is not even ‘change management’ – it is ‘change initiation’ which requires chartering unknown waters. Initiating the change requires even higher level of individual courage, leadership and persuasion skills to bring all affected parties on the same page. In a large and complex organization, it means hopping over silos and other political boundaries and tribal cultures and getting them agree to something else. Apart from a very strong understanding of systems thinking, it also needs very high amount of political capital and people suaveness to get it done. It also takes a lot of time to get this done, and most of us are simply not prepared to initiate such transformational change for a variety of additional reasons (e.g., if my performance system rewards result-orientation at the cost of long-haul systemic improvement, how can I demonstrate results by the time next review is due, and so on). So, we settle down for what appears to be second-best – just fix it. In reality, that is just postponing what eventually needs to be done anyhow – and perhaps at an even greater cost!

So, think again – are you thinking about solving the problem, or simply fixing it?

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