Monday, July 19, 2010

Strategic Planning Analogy #339: Simple Solutions

Back in the 1960s, the United States and the USSR were in a race for dominance in outer space. Each country wanted to prove its superiority by achieving more in space than the other, like being the first to land a man on the moon.

There were a number of difficult challenges in getting a man to the moon and back. For example, in outer space there is no gravity, which makes it impossible to use a standard ball point pen. Things need to be written down while in outer space, so what do you do to solve this problem?

Well, the United States took a number of years and spent millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars to invent a pen that does not require gravity. It was quite an achievement. By contrast, the Russians found a different way to solve the problem. They decided to use a pencil (which costs practically nothing).

Government waste is nothing new. That multi-million dollar pen is not the first time governments have taken the expensive route when a much cheaper answer is available…and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

This is not just a problem with governments, however. Businesses also face all kinds of difficult problems. Just as in the case of the multi-million dollar pen verses a cheap pencil, there can be a tendency for business people to believe that complicated problems require complicated solutions. Well, many times you can solve a complex problem with a simple and inexpensive solution.

Before embarking on a long and expensive strategic journey to design a complex solution (like a pen that works in zero gravity), take a moment to consider whether there is a quick and simple solution (like a pencil). After all, just like the space race, businesses are in the race to win the hearts and minds of their customers. And in the business race, being slower to market with a more expensive alternative can destroy a company’s chances for success.

The principle here is that just because a problem may appear complex, that does not mean that the solution needs to be equally complex. Many times, there is a simple answer. In addition to the story of the multi-million dollar pen versus the pencil, here are some other examples of that principle in action.

Empty Boxes
There was a cosmetics company in Japan which had a problem. Occasionally, the assembly line where their soap was inserted into boxes failed. Customers could purchase a box of their soap at the store and then be disappointed when they got home and found that their box was empty. The soap never got inserted into the box on the assembly line.

The Japanese cosmetic company put its best engineers on the case to solve this problem. Their solution? They devised an X-ray machine to check every box going down the assembly line. The X-ray machine would take a picture of each box so that two technicians could see into the inside of the boxes to detect whether or not the box had soap in it. This was a complex and expensive solution which slowed down the assembly line, created a need for expensive equipment and the hiring of more people, and could create potential radiation problems in the factory.

By contrast, one of the rank and file people on the assembly line found a simple solution. He bought a strong industrial electric fan and pointed it at the assembly line. The wind from the fan blew against each box as it passed by the fan. If a box was empty, the fan blew it off the assembly line, leaving only the boxes with soap in them. This solution was cheap and did not slow down the assembly line.

Big Trucks
And you’ve probably at some time heard the story of the large truck which got stuck under a bridge. Apparently, the truck was taller (or the bridge lower) than expected, so there was not enough clearance. Engineers were looking at all sorts of complex solutions for getting the truck unstuck—including taking apart parts of the bridge or cutting off parts of the truck.

A little boy walked by, looked at the situation, and suggested that all they need to do is let some of the air out of the truck’s tires. This would lower the truck enough so that it could be simply driven out from under the bridge.

Rough Road
This past weekend I was on a long road trip. I was starting to get tired and was worried about getting so tired that I would accidentally swerve off the road into a ditch. I started thinking of ways to prevent this problem. My first thought would be to put laser beams along the side of the road. If a car swerved off the road, it would break the laser beam. This would then send a signal to a sensor that would activate a series of lights and horns to alert the driver that they had crossed over the edge of the road.

Of course, then I remembered that this problem had already been solved. The road crews had cut out narrow little strips of concrete from the edge of the road. When a car crosses over the edge, the tires will go over these places where the narrow strips were missing. This would shake the car a little and make a loud rumbling noise that would get the driver’s attention. It was a cheap and simple way to solve the problem…much better than my idea.

So what can we learn from these stories to help up avoid making poor choices in solving problems?

1. Look at how You Define the Problem
Before you start to solve a problem, make sure you have properly defined the problem you are trying to solve. With the space story, the US had defined the improperly defined the problem as “How do I design a pen to work in zero gravity.” The USSR had more properly defined the problem as “How can I take notes in outer space.” By pre-supposing that the answer required a better pen, the US ignored the possibility of a simple, non-pen solution.

In the story of the truck, the engineers were trying to solve the expensive problem of “how to untangle a tall truck from a low bridge” rather than using the boy’s approach of “how to eliminate the tangle altogether by changing the relative height of the truck to the bridge.” The engineer’s question caused them to look up for a solution, while the boy’s question caused him to look down (at the tires) for the solution.

In other words, how you frame the question will determine where you focus to find the solution. Poorly worded questions tend to look at process improvement (better pen) or cleaning up a mess (truck stuck on bridge). These questions almost by default tend to create complex and expensive solutions.

By focusing on improving a process, you are eliminating the option of seeking out different options, like eliminating a process or substituting a radically different process. By focusing on fixing a mess, you are missing out on options which eliminate the mess in the first place.

Better worded questions look at outcomes (ability to take notes) and solutions (truck no longer under bridge) rather than the immediate problem at hand (bad pen, stuck truck). Take time to phase your question properly, so that you are working on discovering solutions rather than fixing problems and processes.

2. Look at what You are Trying to Accomplish
In the case of the Japanese soap box engineers and my approach to solving drowsy driving, we both made a fatal mistake. We assumed that prior to solving the problem, there needed to be intermediary steps. We both added steps around detection and segregation.

The Japanese engineers wanted an expensive process to first detect which boxes needed special treatment (X-rays). Then they would segregate those empty boxes and treat them differently. My road process wanted expensive lasers to detect which drivers were driving poorly before segregating them for special treatments of noise and lights.

The simple solutions avoided the prior steps of detection and segregation. For the soap boxes and the fan, nobody needed to pre-determine which boxes had no soap in them and the boxes did not have to be separated for different treatment. Instead, every box was treated the same all the time. With the fan, empty boxes disappeared all on their own, without prior detection.

With the cut grooves in the road, there was no need for an expensive laser detection system. And you didn’t need a process to turn off and on warning sounds based on that detection. All cars were treated the same, and if a car was veering off the road, the system took care of itself.

In other words, before tackling a problem, make sure to examine what you are trying to accomplish. Sometimes we try to accomplish a series of steps which require events like gathering knowledge, detecting differences, and treating things differently based on these differences. Perhaps you do not need to accomplish all of those intermediate steps in order to solve the original problem. Again, one needs to focus on the solution rather than the process. By focusing on all the steps in a process, you may fail to see the benefit from eliminating steps or using a different process with simpler steps.

3. Look at who you ask to Solve the Problem
As we pointed out in an earlier blog, “to a hammer every problem looks like a nail.” In other words, we tend to create solutions based on our backgrounds and our strengths. An engineer will tend to look for solutions which require expensive engineering, because that is what they do for a living. In the case of the pen, the X-ray and the dismantling of a bridge, engineers were looking for engineering solutions. The idea for the fan came not from an engineer, but a worker on the line. The idea to let air out of the tires came from a little boy.

When you are looking for solutions, who do you have on the solution team? Consider having a diverse group, including people on the front line, customers, new employees, and people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines. It’s hard to find out-of-the box solutions if you keep turning to people in the same box to solve them. Make sure your team includes people whose occupation is not tied to expertise in creating complex solutions.

Just because a problem is large does not mean that the solution automatically needs to be large, complex, expensive, and take a lot of time. Often, there can be a simple solution. To find the simple solution, a) frame questions around solutions rather than problems; b) don’t get hung up on solving a number of unnecessary intermediate steps; and c) have a diverse team working on the solution.

Sometimes problems do require complex solutions. To determine whether a more complex solution is required, ask your self these questions:

1. Am I just treating a symptom or the root cause of the problem? If you are just treating a symptom, then you need to broaden the solution.

2. Is this problem intertwined with lots of other issues in a system where actions in one area can ripple out into dozens of unintended consequences in other areas? If so, then you probably need a broader systemic approach.


  1. Gerald,
    This is a great reading. You are spot on when you emphasize that complex problems may generate from simple issues. The complexity of many systems is based on the interactions of simple rules with inner feedback loops. Complex questions are no different.

  2. Gerald, Yet another great principle – “just because a problem may appear complex that does not mean that the solution needs to be equally complex”.

    I couldn’t agree with you more - that it all comes down scoping the problem correctly by asking the right set of questions within the right frame of reference. While I agree that our questions need to be outcome/solution focused (and not problem focused) - over the years - I have also used another “middle ground” approach of scoping the problem with a “good enough” solution mindset - addressing the common denominator requirement (between the problem and outcome dimensions) – or addressing the “needs and wants” of the actors within the problem space (customers, shareholders, suppliers etc). This “good enough” solution mindset - apart from addressing both the problem and outcome dimensions- also helps us to come up with the right solution for the right need - and to your point – pencil solution is a good enough solution to meet the shorter writing needs of astronauts at space - as taking short notes that does not have to be preserved for longer period of time is the requirement here.

    Finally, as you have correctly summarized – it all comes down to solving for root causes as opposed to the symptoms - as scoping the problem from the “effect or symptom based” mindset (based on the environment or dollar/ effort spent) leads to complex solutions whereas scoping the problem based on “cause based” mindset (based on the needs or wants) leads to a systemic solution which in most cases is nothing but a “good enough” solution.