Problem-Solving 101: Don’t Over-Think the Problem. Oh… And Ask Those Closest To It for Input

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Sometimes when we have a problem, one temptation is to over-think it and come up with a solution that may solve the issue, but takes much longer and costs far more than necessary. Another temptation is to forget that those closest to the issue may have valuable insights into a simple and quick solution.

I’m reminded of the great story about the toothpaste company that was having an issue with shipping empty toothpaste cartons when the machinery accidentally missed the box while trying to insert a tube of toothpaste into it.

Determined to get the best minds on the project, the CEO and his team hired an external engineering firm to solve the problem. Six months (and $8 million) later, they had a solution in which high-tech precision scales would sound a bell and flash lights whenever a toothpaste box weighed less than it should. The line would then stop, a worker would walk over and remove the empty box, then restart the line.

However, after three weeks, the scales stopped registering empty boxes, a highly unlikely scenario. After investigation, leaders found that workers, annoyed with having to stop production and waste time walking over, physically removing empty boxes from the belt and re-starting production again, had found a simple solution to the original problem: they placed a fan next to the conveyor belt, which blew empty boxes off the belt and into a bin before they reached the scale (thus preventing the scale from sending an alarm… but also preventing the original problem of shipping empty boxes to stores)!

Much debate has ensued over the worker ignoring the new solution (rules), the safety of having a fan with a cord stretched out in the work area, and many more issues. But the messages are clear: not only was this issue way over-thought, but those closest to the issue should have been asked to provide input into a (much simpler and less costly) solution.

Workers may (or may not) have valuable input to offer leadership when problems arise, but by asking, leaders may get a simpler solution; an added benefit is that it also shows workers that leaders respect their intelligence enough to at least ask for their input, even if it’s not ultimately used.

Funny story: the same concept happened recently to my husband and me, as he tried to fix our pool vacuum. He was trying to remove some plastic pegs that had broken off and gotten stuck in the holes where new pegs needed to go. I heard him working on the lanai, using screwdrivers, a putty knife, pliers and finally a drill! When he started drilling, I went out to see what was up and discovered that he was trying to use the drill to break up the pieces and pull them out.

Walnut_pick-smallI took a look and my mind instantly went to the utensils I use in the kitchen. A walnut pick came to mind and I asked Bruce if he thought I could use that tool to get under the edge of the peg and pry it out. As he was telling me that it would never work, I went to the kitchen, got the pick, came back and tried it. POP – out came the peg!

When Bruce saw that, he chuckled and said, “See – I told you it would never work!”

Turns out that sometimes the one with the least knowledge comes up with the most creative ideas… simply because she doesn’t know any better!

So, the next time you have a problem with what should be a simple solution, and you’re tempted to over-think it, turn to the person with the least knowledge and ask if they have any creative ideas you would never have thought of yourself!

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