Dissolving Problems: What Strategy Works Best?

Have you ever solved a problem only to see it return? We have all experienced this frustration. How can we reduce this frustration and make our best effort to prevent a problem from returning? What is the best strategy?

In march 2017 the United States Congress failed to pass a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare (Affordable Care Act). The media reported numerous reasons for this failure and most of them involve blaming a person or group of persons. Looking for the “culprit” is a popular strategy for attempting to dissolve a problem and it never really works. Focusing on who caused a problem is very popular but also very unsophisticated. It’s popular because it is easy and it helps us avoid personal responsibility. It is unsophisticated because it is a focus on symptoms and not root causes. How can we avoid blame and focus on the root causes? The answer, focus instead on the first 15%.

I painted a bathroom this past weekend. Taking extra time to carefully tape the trim allowed me to do a high-quality job faster and with less waste in the cleanup stage. I spent time on the first 15% of the job, namely the taping, and it helped me save time and to do better job overall. I focused on the first 15%.

“The secret for reduction in time of development is to put more effort into the early stages, and to study the interactions between stages.” (Deming, 1994)

The Butterfly Effect

A mild-mannered meteorologist professor at MIT was simulating weather patterns by entering data into a computer program. He decided to enter data dropping the last three decimals (ten thousand, hundred thousand, and millions) from the data seeing it as unimportant for his research. After the calculation, he was astonished to see how dropping those very small effects made an enormous impact on the outcome of the simulation. This effect came to be known as the “butterfly effect.” (Dizikes, 2011)

The metaphor of the butterfly is astonishing. The claim is a butterfly flapping its wings in New York will change the direction of a typhoon in the Pacific. Very small changes in the very beginning of a process will make an enormous change in the outcome. Focus on the first 15% to improve the outcome.

Typical managers use a different strategy. They ask questions about people such as “Who did this?” or “Who did that?” They also ask questions about fixing the issue, “How shall we fix it?” “When shall we fix it?” and/or “Who shall fix it?” They are assuming if they fix the problem they make progress. It’s not true. All they do is go back to where they started. The typical manager uses the typical performance appraisal to attempt to solve problems. This action rarely gets to the root cause because it does not focus on the first 15%. It focuses instead on the employee behavior which is most often not the root cause but instead the symptom. I could focus on being very careful not to get any paint on the trim in my bathroom and if I did, my wife could tell me to be more careful. But, because I had focused on covering the trim first my ability to be careful was less critical.

We must remove the root cause and we can only do that by looking in the right place. We must look at the beginning of the process. We must focus on the “0th” stage. To truly make progress we must improve the first 15% of the process.

Peter Drucker explained, “Progress is obtained only by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems. When you solve problems, all you do it guarantee a return to normalcy.”

It is likely Congress chose the incorrect strategy in the first 15% of their planning and that poor choice damaged their ability to achieve their goal. What can we learn from these ideas? At the beginning of every project spend extra time to align the team members on the vision, the mission, and the action plan. Don’t be too quick to roll out the plan until this first 15% is clear.,

When improving a process, identify all the steps that need to be completed to achieve the intended outcome and then spend most of your time on the first 15% of the process steps. This strategy will allow you to achieve an excellent outcome.

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