Where Simple Solutions Go to Die… and How to Help Them Live

    Imagine your business has run into a major problem somewhere in its operations. Something has gone wrong and people are panicking. How confident are you that your business will quickly and permanently resolve the issue?

    Solving such problems requires more than a meeting or a methodology. It requires the right set of problem solving behaviors. Without these key behaviors, a group of skilled people with a strong problem solving method can go astray and end up missing the simple, elegant solution that can resolve the problem quickly and cheaply.

    But old habits can be hard to break. Both nature and nurture encourage us to guess at solutions to the tough problems we face–especially when time is pressing. When we start guessing, we take a flurry of ineffective action. The opportunity to curiously study why the problem is occurring–the key to finding a simple, elegant solution–is lost. In this way a team can get themselves into a problem-solving rut that is difficult to escape.

    In the infographic below, we sought to playfully capture what a problem-solving dystopia looks like: what can go wrong when we simply can’t stop guessing?

    If any of this is familiar to you it means that you have the opportunity to create better problem solving behaviors. To begin, here are a few behaviors to identify and avoid in your workplace:

    • Assuming that a problem with a piece of equipment is the vendor’s responsibility to solve. Vendors know all there is to know about how their equipment is designed, but you know how your unit performs in your facility best. They want to help, but often the best way they know how is to sell you a newer model. Get their help in finding the right information or the right place to look in your equipment, but don’t rely on them to solve your problem.
    • Assuming that because the problem existed for a long time, it can’t be solved quickly and simply. Typically, old problems have withstood several previous problem-solving attempts. This can have us believing that the answer must be some sort of expensive and complicated capital solution. Myths surround the problem: “it’s just old,” or “it will never operate well for our particular products.” However, when the root cause of a problem is well understood, the solution is almost always simple. Believing a simple solution exists is a prerequisite to finding it.
    • Presuming that because an area is performing to budget, that there isn’t significant opportunity to make it better. From an improvement perspective, a budget is an arbitrary target, often influenced by negotiation. Whether a metric is above or below target tells us nothing about how our operation is performing versus what is possible. Don’t stop when you reach the target; look for the greatest value to the business you can add. Get the facts about what is possible in each part of your operations, and go after the ripest fruit.
    • Presuming that because a brainstorm produced a long list of ideas, that the root cause must definitely be on it. Hard problems may have hundreds or even thousands of potential root causes–and for these hard problems, the true root cause is likely obscured or hidden entirely. The odds of a brainstorm identifying the correct root cause may be extremely unlikely… and even if it did, implementing all of the ideas may require an unacceptable investment. Worse, you might create new problems in the process. Instead, cleave off whole groups of possible solutions by studying the problem and narrowing the scope.

    Fortunately, each of us brings many problem-solving strengths to the table. Learn more about your problem solving strengths with this quiz. Bringing these strengths to bear will help you find the simple, elegant solutions in your operations.

    Scott Whitebread is a Partner at Stroud International and has helped a number the world’s leading energy and mining operators to substantially increase the value of their major capital projects through concurrent improvements in capital intensity, operating expenses, production rate and asset lifetime. Scott holds a Bachelor’s in Environmental Engineering from the University of New South Wales.

    Guest Post by: Scott Whitbread

    Infographic by: www.stroudinternational.com

    Image Credit: Google Images

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