Tag Archives: Decision making

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?

A checklist is more powerful than an org chart?

Most of us so-called ‘knowledge workers’ don’t particularly fancy the term ‘checklist’. It smacks of an antiquated top-down command-and-control Dilbert-style bureaucracy where someone sitting on 42nd floor of corporate headquarters hands down a piece of paper for you to blindly follow and to make you feel dumb and outright humble – for it dilutes your role and underplays your intelligence as if anyone else in your position could have done it! In short, it seems to trivialize the knowledge, skills and expertize required for the job into a mechanical routine requiring no human intelligence, and places the decision-making into hands of people irrespective of their competence levels. And we hate it!

Wikipedia defines a checklist as:

“A checklist is a type of informational job aid used to reduce failure by compensating for potential limits of human memory and attention. It helps to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a task. A basic example is the “to do list.” A more advanced checklist would be a schedule, which lays out tasks to be done according to time of day or other factors.”

From the definition above, it seems like an innocuous tool that just helps you keep focus on the most critical things – things that you might skip rather unintentionally or lose track of during one of the numerous hand-offs, or mix-up their sequence when there is time pressure. Obviously, there is no way a checklist could enlighten a dummy into being an expert overnight!

Atul Gawande has done a wonderful job of elevating the good old checklist in his pathbreaking “The Checklist Manifesto” to a modern management tool that can be used to prevent unintentional human mistakes and improve collaboration and decision-making in emergency situations – even in the areas that require utmost brainpower. He cites real-life examples from some of the most complex endeavors – complex human surgeries, constructing tall building and flying jet planes, among others, that no doubt require very high

A short pencil is better than a long memory…

amount of individual cognitive skill in respective functional areas, but also require a high precision in the steps to be followed – both during meticulous planning and preparation, and in making split-second decisions during an emergency, be it flying at ten miles above ground or a complex brain surgery on operation table. One after other, he repeatedly presents compelling data from such hi-intelligence professions that reinforce his assertion that something as rudimentary as a checklist could have such dramatic impact in complex human endeavors.

In this article, I have taken some teasers from this book that I liked and made a lot of sense to me. I have also included my own commentary and perspective for each of these.

Knowledge continues to grow at an astounding pace. No one person can hope to ever keep pace with all latest advances in any one single field, let alone build a body of knowledge around core specialization area and adjacent knowledge areas. And yet, in many cases, we have no option but to rely on the individual judgment by a supposed ‘expert’. What if that ‘expert’ was not good enough, or as good as we make out of them? What if that one single source of true knowledge, the true ‘Master Builder’ was more like someone who was a mediocre talent as best, and could not live up to the high expectations of infallibility, and yet we place almost entire decision-making into their independent charge? That would be a true disaster. Gawande calls out such challenge:

“…in the absence of a true Master Builder – a supreme, all-knowing expert with command of all existing knowledge – autonomy is a disaster. It produced only a cacophony of incompatible decisions and overlooked errors.”

So, while autonomy is the desired end-state, we need to be cognizant that perhaps there is no such single person in real life who deserves to be the undisputed knight of all things worldly! At best it is an urban myth and at worst, it is a nightmare played out multiple times in each field! A cacophony of incompatible decisions and overlooked errors! Sounds outrageous, but apparently not so rare.

Let’s walk a bit with the fact (?) that there is no one single person supremely capable of mastering all the knowledge so as to be the single source of truth. What would then be the second-best way to manage complex human endeavors? Perhaps assign it to teams who are then chartered to figure out the solution? A group of perhaps regular people who individually posses a bit of knowledge each, and collectively represent whatever it takes to address the problem at hand? That does seem like a logical way, because we believe more heads are better than one. However, it is difficult enough to get a collocated team perform in top gear, imagine distributed teams in multiple time zones, contractors from different companies with different and often incompatible cultures and processes working together, employees coming from various departments for whom local departmental gains are more important than the global organizational goals. Can checklists provide some guidance?

Here again, Gawande has some interesting viewpoint:

“in the face of the unknown – the always nagging uncertainty about whether, under complex circumstances, thing will really be okay – the builders trusted in the power of communication. They didn’t believe in the wisdom of the single individual, of even an experienced engineer. They believed in the wisdom of the group, the wisdom of making sure that multiple pairs of eyes were on a problem and then letting the watchers decide what to do.

Man is fallible, but maybe men are less so.”

However, we often believe that by simply crowdsourcing, we can fix the problem. We expect a reasonably sized group to eventually gravitate towards one common solution. While this might be true for simple party games like ‘guess the weight of the cake’, how do we extend and apply this to more real-life problems that entail tangible risks, such as do we need an additional overhead beam to distribute the load on the 37th floor of a highrise building, or whether we need to give more anesthesia to a 63-year old patient of severe diabetes and hypertension on the table for his bypass? In traditional management, a manager would be supremely empowered to make such decisions – his knowledge and experience was ‘supposed’ to mitigate any risks associated with such centralized decision-making, because, well, the ‘workers’ in that quintessential industrial age were after all dumb. In such one-sided match, the worker participation was almost always zero, and the decision-making was the elite preserve of the management class. We can’t say if that was effective or not (though we do know that was not the most motivational way), but apparently that’s the only thing that was! However, the advent of knowledge-economy brought with it three important changes : rapid pace of creation of new knowledge, new means and mechanisms to rapidly mass proliferate the newfound knowledge and a faster obsolescence rate of old knowledge have all collectively led to a more balanced play at work. No longer is ‘manager’ the Mr. Know-all, but is increasingly dependent on the critical inputs from her team member – most of whom have much more current knowledge and also hate a centralized hoarding of decision-making.

In such workplaces, it’s time the decision-making was made more democratic. What would be the risk of democratizing decision-making? Would it be akin to the inmates running the asylum? How can we ensure that best decisions will be made, and who will be accountable for those decisions? Can checklists help in this regard?

“In response to risk, most authorities tend to centralize power and decision making. That’s usually what checklists are about – dictating instructions to the workers below to ensure they do things the way we want. ….it spelled out to the tiniest details every critical step the tradesmen were expected to follow and when – which is logical if you’re confronted with simple and routine problems; you want the forcing function.”

So, apparently, the checklists ‘decentralized’ the decision-making but more as a forcing function. In a way, we can say that since Managers couldn’t be everywhere, Management created Checklists! Clearly, that’s not the best reason to justify or support checklists, even though we might have succeeded in our nefarious designs.

However, history has repeated shown us that every new invention has two sides – the good and the bad. While a checklist might have succeeded in its ‘forcing function’, it also has a positive side. This is the aspect that helps pilots and brain surgeons achieve better planning and performance. This allows for teams to create better bonding as much as making life-or-death calls in a split second. You have the read Gawande’s book to believe that.

So, why is that people hate checklist? Do they fear loss of individuality, respect, authority? Gawande offers some perspective and the counterintuitive wisdom:

“The fear people have about the idea of adherence to protocol is rigidity. They imagine automatons, leads down in a checklist, incapable of looking out their windshield and coping with the real world in front of them. But what you find, when a checklist is well made, is exactly the opposite. The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with.”

As an example, he cites an interesting anecdote about what makes a team high performing by a simple act of just making sure that people follow the simple checklist of introducing themselves to the team by just telling their names:

“People who don’t know one another’s names don’t work together nearly as well as those who do.

The investigators at John Hopkins and elsewhere had also observed that when nurses were given a chance to say their names and mention concerns at the beginning of a case, they were more likely to note problems and offer solutions. The researchers called it an “activation phenomenon”. Giving people a chance to say something at the start seemed to activate their sense of participation and responsibility and their willingness to speak up.”

Imagine if the simple act of sharing names could accomplish so much, what else lies unexplored? However, in the absence of a checklist that ‘mandated’ such ‘routine’ we were potentially wasting this opportunity. Surely we could do away (and perhaps should do away) with checklists if only we could do such ‘common sensical’ stuff without them!

So, if checklists are an important management tool, how best to operationalize them? Should the manager ‘own’ the checklisting process? Here is an interesting take from the field of aviation, where, as we all know, once you take-off, you are literally hanging in the mid-air, and hence must do everything right to land safely:

“In aviation, there is a reason the “pilot not flying” starts the checklist. The “pilot flying” can be distracted by flight tasks and liable to skip a checklist. Moreover, dispersing the responsibility send the message that everyone – not just the captain – is responsible for the overall well-being of the flight and should have the power to question the process.”

So, there we are. It seems that there is a significant body of work to support the conjecture that checklists can be beneficial in more ways than one. They are not simply a forcing function, nor do they impede empowerment not stifle creativity. On the contrary, they help facilitate conversations during unexpected non-trivial situations. They also make the decision-making more decentralized and often democratic. To that end, a checklist is more powerful than an org chart. Too bad if that scares you!

Use checklist for all reasons and all seasons. As they say, a short pencil is better than a long memory…

Would you make a popular decision over a right decision ?

This is another one of those doing rounds on the net. Source unknown, but good learning value.

A group of children were playing near two railway tracks, one still in use while the other disused. Only one child played on the disused track, the rest on the operational track.

The train is coming, and you are just beside the track interchange. You can make the train change its course to the disused track and save most of the kids. However, that would also mean the lone child playing by the disused track would be sacrificed. Or would you rather let the train go its way?    

tracks

 

Let’s take a pause to think what kind of decision we could make……………. 
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Most people might choose to divert the course of the train, and sacrifice only one child. You might think the same way, I guess. Exactly, I thought the same way initially because to save most of the children at the expense of only one child was rational decision most people would make, morally and emotionally. But, have you ever thought that the child choosing to play on the disused track had in fact made the right decision to play at a safe place?

Nevertheless, he had to be sacrificed because of his ignorant friends who chose to play where the danger was. This kind of dilemma happens around us everyday. In the office, community, in politics and especially in a democratic society, the minority is often sacrificed for the interest of the majority, no matter how foolish or ignorant the majority are, and how farsighted and knowledgeable the minority are. The child who chose not to play with the rest on the operational track was sidelined. And in the case he was sacrificed, no one would shed a tear for him.

The great critic Leo Velski Julian who told the story said he would not try to change the course of the train because he believed that the kids playing on the operational track should have known very well that track was still in use, and that they should have run away if they heard the train’s sirens. If the train was diverted, that lone child would definitely die because he never thought the train could come over to that track! Moreover, that track was not in use probably because it was not safe. If the train was diverted to the track, we could put the lives of all passengers on board at stake! And in your attempt to save a few kids by sacrificing one child, you might end up sacrificing hundreds of people to save these few kids.

While we are all aware that life is full of tough decisions that need to be made, we may not realize that hasty decisions may not always be the right one.

“Remember that what’s right isn’t always popular… and what’s popular isn’t always right.”  

Everybody makes mistakes; that’s why they put erasers on pencils.

I don’t know enough to comment if Leo Velski Julian’s approach is right or wrong, but it surely resembles the reality: we often disregard the ‘right’ and protect the ‘wrong’ because of relative costs of choosing between the two of them. I guess ‘popularity’ is more important than being ‘right’ for most of us in most of the situations.

Decision-making is not as straight forward as choosing between right and wrong anymore, if it ever was! Most often, there are two or more choices, none absolutely right or absolutely wrong, and the right choice being made depending on the relative cost/benefit of one over other, with not all factors known upfront with enough clarity or certainty! While sometimes flipping the coin might be the best way to make decisions when both options look equally good (or equally bad, depending on how you look at life) and you want that extra bit from the heavens to help you make the right choice, we might not always have the luxury to flip a coin to take the decision and being able to justify, especially when things go wrong, as they eventually will. The system expects us to use an explainable rational thought process to arrive at a decision even if that goes wrong as opposed to a plain intuition-backed decision that might go right.

I believe the single-most important function of a manager is the decision-making ability. When things are clear and certain, it is often a no-brainer – and it might not be an exaggeration that the manager is not even required! What is interesting is how a manager, or just about anyone will digest raw, incomplete, uncertain and highly dynamic information and produce a decision that will stand the test of time. As someone said, hindsight is always 20/20, and so, it is always extremely easy to trash a decision after the event has happened and all details are available. The thing is, do you have what is takes to make a decision knowing very well that future possibly won’t be kind to it?

In software development and most other knowledge-based disciplines, we are increasingly seeing a firm, irreversible and healthy trend towards teams taking and owning decisions that impact them. This surely eliminates, or at least mitigates, the risk associated with a sole decision-maker, and allows decisions to be made with two distinct advantaes: everyone’s involvement is akin to ‘wisdom of crowds’ and hopefully will bring team to a better decision, and there are higher chances of a team buying-in the decisions made.

How do you take decisions? Do you take decisions for your team, or does your team take decisions for themselves, with your participation, as required? How does your team deal with the issue of a majority taking a popular opinion that might be like diverting the train to the unused track to protect people even if they are clearly wrong? Would you or your team make a popular decision over a right one?