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Einstein on Problem Solving
By  Arnold Cesar Abaya|Mar 27, 2017|

Albert einsteins big theory was maybe suggested by another

You’ll hear most would say: “ I have no time for improvement.”

BUT: you’ll never hear them say: “I have time for firefighting.” And surely you’ll hear them say “We need to have a sense of urgency. We need to resolve it quickly.”

I agree there is sometimes an urgency in what we do but how much time do we really spend in firefighting activities in an 8 to 9 hour a day schedule? Study will show that most spend as much as 70% of their time performing firefighting activities. Most organizations have more problems than people with time to deal with the problems. More time and resources are spent on chronic problems and minor problems are ignored. Since there not enough resources, people would rush from one problem to another and as the case may be, problems are not really completely resolved. Problem solving degenerate to quick and dirty “band-aid” solutions. Operational cost increases, more people are focused on unnecessary controls, and less time is spent on productive work. Since problems are incompletely resolved, the problems would recur and so the vicious cycle of firefighting starts all over again. Firefighting also creates a “culture of blame.” Managers and engineers would then spend more and more time reacting to irate queries than focusing on solving the problem. And the worst of all, organizations rewards the firefighter. The one who puts out the biggest fire is the “hero”. 

So how do we get out of this vicious cycle? How do you move out from a “Survival Mode” wherein each day is struggle to “Growth Mode” wherein the organization is more focused on achieving business strategies?

After working more than 2 decades in a very competitive industry, there are tested and proven means of a achieving a more productive organization and less toxic working environment. Putting your team in the right perspective is the best start. Having a team of shared vision and a common set of values as far as problem solving is concerned can make a significant impact.

Whenever I coach our team on solving problems, I always share quotes made by Albert Einstein. 

I use Einstein’s quotes simply because for one he is famous. Much more famous than most gurus of quality, management and leadership. Secondly, his works has changed the world profoundly. Having said these, anyone can relate immediately to who Einstein was.

Let me share a few quotes of his quotes:

“If you cannot explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

The famous formula E=mc2 is simple, straightforward, elegant and still holding true for more than a century now.

I had the experience of listening to someone explaining his Problem Definition in more than hour with over a 100 slides! Would you expect everyone to understand his project or better yet, would you expect key stake holders to support his project? The guy spent another hour answering a barrage of questions from his stake holders. 

If you can’t explain it simply, try digging deeper until you get “simple” answers. 

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Problem solving is a daily challenge for most of us and more often than not problems are not presented in a clear and concise manner. Defining the problem is compromised by our enthusiasm to solve the problem before we truly understand what the problem is. All in the interest of saving time. Understanding the problem and the scope of the problem would most of the time provide the right solution. As the case maybe, you’ll probably end up with a problem that is much harder to solve, but the payoff is always worth the effort.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 

If your problems keeps recurring, why implement the same solution? Step back and look back again at the problem and start asking ourselves if we are really putting solutions on the “real” root cause(s). Problems don’t get resolve because we fail to identify the underlying root causes and if we do get to the root causes, we fail to put in the solution and apply the necessary control to prevent the problem from recurring again.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

It’s the existing thinking of how problems are solved put us in a fire-fighting culture in the first place, so why use the same thinking? It would be difficult for organizations to get out of a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of firefighting unless a change in strategy and culture is done by the organization. 

Put a stop on the culture of blame and stop rewarding fire fighters for a start and instead build a culture of continuous improvement and a culture of innovation. There are several proven problem solving methodologies out there but one can start from a simple method such as A3 report, 7 QC story, Toyota’s 8 Step problem solving, PDCA to a more complex and sophisticated Six Sigma. 

I have a lot of experience working on problems and I have to admit these concepts are not easily accepted. It takes time and persistence and a “never give-up” attitude and the journey of moving away from firefighting can be rewarding in the end for both you and the organization. 

Or would you still rather jump in to the fire and run in different directions like “head-less chickens”


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