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Jun 27, 2007

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Problem Solving: Define Problem

Problem Solving: Define Problem

One mistake that people often make when they are faced with a
situation is to jump straight into finding solutions, giving little
thought to defining the problem. For example, a hotel manager
saw a sudden dip in occupancy rate, and asked the staff to
propose “ways to increase the occupancy rate.” Everyone went
full steam into publicity, promotional offers, events and other
gimmicks. Months later, they found out that people were
avoiding the hotel because of widespread rumor over the
internet that the hotel was haunted. It originated from the
paranormal sightings by a hotel guest. If the manager had asked
the staff to “find out why the occupancy rate had dipped,” they
would have learned about this and gone into damage control.

Story:

The Crow and the Pitcher

Problem Solving: Define Problem

(Illus by Milo Winter)

In a spell of dry weather, when the Birds could find very little to
drink, a thirsty Crow found a pitcher with a little water in it. But
the pitcher was high and had a narrow neck, and no matter how
he tried, the Crow could not reach the water. The poor thing
felt as if he must die of thirst.

Then an idea came to him. Picking up some small pebbles, he
dropped them into the pitcher one by one. With each pebble the
water rose a little higher until at last it was near enough so he
could drink.

Moral:

In a pinch a good use of our wits may help us out.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
Little by little does the trick.

Kidding me:

Problem Solving: Define Problem

Quotable Quotes:

“It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that
they can't see the problem.” ... G. K. Chesterton

“In solving our problems, we should beware of
creating worse ones.” ... Indira Gandhi

“What a difficult thing it is to ask someone's
advice on a matter without coloring his judgment
by the way in which we present our problem.”
... Blaise Pascal

“Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.”
... Henry J. Kaiser

“When all you have is a hammer, all your problems
start to look like nails.” ... Abraham Maslow

“The problems of this world are only truly solved
in two ways: by extinction or duplication.”
... Susan Sontag

[browse collection of quotes and quotations]

Lessons in life:

At home, a parent noticed that her daughter's school grades
were declining. She engaged private tutors, enrolled her for
additional courses, bought assessment guides and did
everything she could to educate her daughter. Strangely, all the
tutors and mentors admitted that the daughter was about the
brightest student they had ever come across. It turned out that
the real reason was that her daughter was afraid to do well in
school. A class bully had threatened her with physical injuries
if she scored better grades than the bully.

There are many steps to solving problems. Here, we want to
discuss the foremost step – Define the Problem. Rather than
go into theories, we shall use an example to illustrate how a
problem can be better defined.

Illustration: -

CEO Wilson was concerned that his office staff were turning
up late for work. He did not like that, but instead of dealing
with the punctuality issue, he penned this on the whiteboard:-

staff are late for work


Next, he asked himself a series of “What if” questions. “What if
the staff are late for work?” The first answer that came to his
mind was “Less work is done.” He asked himself again, “What if
less work is done?” His answer to that was “Customers are not
served.” Then, “What if the customers are not served?” And he
went on with this line of questioning until what he saw on the
whiteboard were these:-

staff are late for work
|
less work is done
|
customers are not served
|
business declines
|
profits are down
|
company is forced to retrench staff
|
morale is affected


Going back to the board, he looked at the first statement that
“staff are late for work.” Working upwards, he asked himself a
series of “Why” questions. “Why are the staff late for work?” A
brief check showed that it was because “staff wake up late.”
“Why did the staff wake up late?” Obviously, “staff sleep late.”
“Why did the staff sleep late?” Although majority were married,
it was not because of hectic night activities but that the “staff
bring work home.” Wilson asked himself, “Why did the staff
bring work home?” This time, he had to agree that it was because
of his new policy, that “staff has to respond to email within an
hour.” Many of their clients were international clients with
different time zones. Because of that, staff were almost on call
round the clock and were forced to check their email in the wee
hours of the morning.

The chart looked like this:-

staff has to respond to email within an hour
|
staff bring work home
|
staff sleep late
|
staff wake up late
|
staff are late for work
|
less work is done
|
customers are not served
|
business declines
|
profits are down
|
company is forced to retrench staff
|
morale is affected


Wilson now had to decide which of these issues he was truly
concerned with. He would then phrase these issues into
questions that could invite actionable ideas and solutions by
inserting a “How to.” For instance, Wilson may choose to
deal with:-

How to get staff to respond to email within an hour?

One possible solution he could think of would be to employ
personnel to work the night shift. Since majority of his clients
were overseas customers, a long time solution would be to
put in place a sizeable workforce to service these clients
during their operational hours. Alternatively, Wilson could
have a night duty roster for staff to take turns to deal with
correspondence in the night. The staff on duty would get a day
off the next day. Whatever solutions he could come up with,
it would resolve as well the punctuality problem.

How to maintain good business profits?

Perhaps Wilson's concern was nothing but dollars and cents.
If he had chosen this as his problem statement, he would go
into areas like productivity level, strategic marketing plans,
brand awareness, mergers and alliances with appropriate
business partners, and so on. The matter about staff being
late would be a minor issue within the bigger picture of
enhancing productivity and morale.

Summary:-

When faced with a problem, always take time to ask yourself
what your concern is really about. Pose questions like “What
if ...” and “Why ...” Craft your issue carefully and choose the
problem that you want to look into. Different problem
statements will give you a different set of possible solutions.
It is better to get it right at the outset than to spend an awful
amount of time finding solutions, only to realize that the real
problems were some other.

Related Articles:

Trust Gut Instincts and Intuition
Turn Adversity into Opportunity

Books worth reading:

101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques: The
Handbook of New Ideas for Business gives you examples
and problem solving techniques that you can try out. It covers
the full spectrum, from identifying problems to making
assumptions, choices, and finally, implementing the solutions.

For a more generic read, get Now, Discover Your Strengths
by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton. This bestseller
aims to enhance your strengths as opposed to eliminating
your weaknesses. You can do the online questionnaire to
understand your own talents and strengths in dealing with
situations and problems.

© Business Fables and Management Lessons

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1 comment:

Mike said...

Hello,

We would like to do an interview with you about your blog for
www.BlogInterviewer.com . We'd like to give you the opportunity to
give us some insight on the "person behind the blog."

It would just take a few minutes of your time. The interview form can
be submitted online at http://bloginterviewer.com/submit-an-interview

Best regards,

Mike Thomas
BlogInterviewer.com

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