Problem Solving – The Problem

Einstein once observed, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” In the world of problem solving it is hard to overstate the importance of understanding the problem to be solved.

Our natural tendency is to jump to solutions. This often happens before we have even a cursory understanding of the problem before us. We simply assume that the initial statement of the problem embodies all we need to know and plow ahead to consider how to address that statement. But, as Einstein warns us, the smart money rests on thoroughly understanding the problem.

Systems engineers are often in the position of solving problems for others. Stakeholders, customers, clients – these are the usual owners of systems engineering problems. Consequently this is the beginning point for investigating the problem.

Usually there is a felt difficulty. We can often cast problems as the difference between the world as it seems and the world as we need/want it to be. This is also true for our customers. A process needs to be improved. A product must be designed. A system needs replacing. All these conclusions stem from some sort of dissatisfaction with the world as it is.

But the problem statement may not hold everything the problem solver needs to know. Physicians know this well. The patient may experience the problem as itchy skin. But the itch from a drug reaction and the itch from chiggers represent two very different underlying problems. Further investigation of the “itchy skin” is warranted before solutions are considered.

This example is clear but the need for investigation is present, even when the problem statement is more nuanced and more professionally framed. We rightly respect our clients’ knowledge of their own domains but that should not discourage us from exploring their problem statements thoroughly. The real difficulty may be hidden, perhaps residing in the context system. The “cause” may not be obvious but the treatment of symptoms while ignoring it can be as ineffectual as treating the “itch” and leaving the chiggers alone.

The temptation to jump to solution is strong. A common proverb warns us that “when you are a hammer, all the world is a nail.” We know our “solution” and are generally anxious to apply it. It may be the right choice but only a complete understanding of the problem space will tell us that definitively. It’s easy to mistake a candidate solution for the description of the problem.

It helps to recognize that the problem resides in a context system. It is formed by the interaction and relationships of the entities that make up the context system. Altering the relationships will alter the interactions and change the system. It is important to recognize that these changes should reflect a thorough understanding of the context system AND the nature of the problem. Otherwise the intervention can have unintended and potentially damaging consequences.

Sometimes the unintended consequences manifest themselves in areas not related to the problem-solution pair. This is illustrated by the increased damage from the 2004 tsunami in areas of coastal Southeast Asia where mangrove stands had been removed to clear areas for agricultural production. In the course of solving economic problems with increased agricultural potential through the removal of mangrove barriers, a new problem – vulnerability to tidal damage – was created.

In other circumstances, the “solution” can actually exacerbate problem itself. In Ireland, Theobald Mathew attacked the problem of excess alcohol consumption with a total abstinence campaign popularly known as “The Pledge.” Although it had many salutary effects, it actually precipitated a dramatic rise in the consumption of diethyl ether, a chemical much more dangerous and unstable than alcohol.

Mathew’s pledge had great social popularity and created social pressure to sign it. It did little to reach the drivers of the urge to become intoxicated which redirected itself in a search for an intoxicant that could be consumed without transgressing the pledge. The new chemical substitute did a good deal of harm in place of the pre-pledge alcohol. The failure to fully understand the problem impeded its solution.

In each instance the premature move to solution brought about an unpleasant and unwelcome set of consequences. The only way to avoid this turn of events in each case was to act with a broader understanding of the problem. The increased investment in understanding the problem space would have provided a view of the likely outcomes. Mathew could have seen that the drinking issues were tied to an addiction that rested on the physical dependence on the effects of the alcohol and that the “pledge” would not erode the dependence. Physicians understand that psoriasis drugs offer the chiggers victims no relief from their insect-generated itching.

In the same way, Einstein’s injunction is well taken in our world of problem solving. We can all profit by an increased dedication to understanding the real problems facing us and our clients.

Leave a Reply