Are you Solving the Wrong Problems?

There are many ways to solve a problem - photo from Tokyo, Japan, 2011
There are many ways to solve a problem – Tokyo, Japan, 2011

I took the above photo after arriving by boat to this location in Tokyo.  Without counting the car or subway, I can see four modes of transportation to choose from in addition to the one was I was already using.  A rickshaw (which I now wish I would have taken), the bus, a bicycle, or good old walking.  Most likely, I could catch a cab  or find a subway station nearby, too.  So I have 6 fairly obvious options, most of which are likely to work, maybe at different speeds and different costs, but all will get the job done.

Sometimes this is where companies struggle to take the next step.  They have the way they currently do something, and they have 4 or 6 ideas on how they might make a change and move forward.  But they get stuck on trying to find the perfect solution and don’t do anything as a result.   In our above example, maybe they worry walking will make them too tired; that the rickshaw is too expensive; the bus is too dirty.  Maybe they wonder if they can find a subway station or cab in this part of town.

All might be valid concerns, but one thing is clear – we can’t stay on the boat that brought us to here if we want to get where we’re going!  Why?  Because it travels on the river and the temple we want to go to is almost a mile inland.   We need to do something – we need to make a decision – if we’re going to leave our current position.

Other companies struggle because of what they can’t do as an improvement.  Staying with our Tokyo transportation issue, maybe they wanted to take one of those Segway machines; maybe they hoped for a sightseeing bus.  Perhaps air travel by helicopter or hot air balloon was the dream so they could really see the landscape of the city.  But none of those are options.  Some companies will again do nothing because what they hoped could be done isn’t possible.

These are the scenarios that cause me great frustration and pain in business.  An organization has an idea for a change, does most of the work, and then doesn’t implement it, or even try it!  Often, as I’m asked to help find ways to improve, the old idea is brought up.  After 20 years, I am always surprised when it happens.  Often, I’m at a loss for words and I always need to vent to a confidant afterwards.

Perhaps it’s fear of failure.  Maybe it’s fear of missing out on a better idea.  It could be just pure lack of confidence or leadership that doesn’t want to do their job by addressing change management.  Whatever it is, it can kill a company.  Doing all the work for no payoff costs the company real money but it also erodes employee morale, and it’s this loss of equity in Human Capital that causes me the pain.

When it comes down to it, do I really care if the solution works or not?  Once it’s fully developed and ready for implementation?  Well, yeah, I do; but it’s more important for the team to try their solution.  If it doesn’t work, we get back on our old boat and go back where we came from and try again.  But almost always, it will be better.   Maybe not perfect, but better than before.

Which reminds me of an old proverb:

Don’t let perfect stand in the way of good.

I understand that originally Voltaire wrote that “perfect is the enemy of good”.  In the effort to make improvements, perfect can be the enemy for a couple reasons.  The first is the scenario above of creating inaction.  But that is compounded when the inaction is in a critical area of the business.  Best case, it leads to spending finite resources solving a problem that has already been solved. When that becomes clear, it’s frustrating to all involved – but hopefully easier to move forward quickly.

Worst case, it leads to market erosion, loss of profits, and eventual loss of the business – all things which will try to be solved (usually from a financial perspective with unfavorable consequences) when they are really just the effects of inaction.   So once again the company is solving the wrong problem.

Don’t solve the wrong problems in your business or your life.  If you have an idea for improvement try it!     Even better, empower your employees to try their ideas!  Crazy, I know.  Don’t make it too complex.  Use PDCA, understand the effects of the change, and add to your  and the organization’s knowledge.  Make continual, incremental improvements.  Be happy with small, quick wins, and eventually you will start seeing the big wins that lead to true transformational change.


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