Category Archives: Decision Making

The Lincoln Memorial and the 5 Why’s

Lincoln Memorial at NightIf you ever get a chance to visit Washington D.C., take the time to visit the Lincoln Memorial.  Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States and led the country through the Civil War and the emancipation of the African-American people from slavery.  The memorial erected in his honor is over 63 meters wide and over 33 meters high.  It has a statue of Lincoln at it’s center that is over 6 meters high and weighs 175,000 kg.  Millions of people visit the memorial each year to remember the strong, Christian leader, who preserved the American nation and had the courage to do what was right.

Several years ago, the National Parks Service executives wrestled with a problem.  The stone exterior of the memorial was deteriorating and showing significant signs of wear.  They considered replacing the stone or painting over it on a frequent basis, but this solution was too expensive.  So instead, they called the maintenance crew and asked, “Why?”

“Why?” is a powerful question in problem solving.  The “Five Why’s” is a simple root cause analysis technique that involves asking “Why?” until you get to the deepest root of a problem.

“Why was the stone deteriorating?” the executives asked.

The maintenance crew responded, “Because of the high-power sprayers we use to wash the memorial every two weeks.”
Now, the executives could have solved the problem at this level by canceling the washings, but they realized this would bring complaints from the tourists, who enjoyed the beauty of a clean and shining memorial.

So, they asked, “Why are we doing high-powered washings every two weeks?”

The maintenance crew said, “Because of the bird droppings.”

It was pretty obvious that if you got rid of the birds, the bird droppings would stop, so the executives sent away the maintenance crew with instructions to put nets up in strategic places.  Unfortunately, the nets weren’t very effective, and the tourists complained that they were unsightly.

So, the maintenance crew was called again, and the executives asked, “Why are there so many birds?”

They pointed out what seemed quite obvious to them: “The reason the birds come is to feed on the spiders,” they said.

“Spiders? Why are there so many spiders?” asked the executives.

“Have you ever been to the memorial at night?,” they asked.  “There are billions of insects.  The spiders come for the buffet.”

Armed with this information, the executives ordered regular treatments of insecticides.  But this solution also proved ineffective and created more complaints from the tourists.  So, the executives called for the maintenance crew again.

Executives: “Why are there so many insects?”

Maintenance crew: “The insects are attracted by the high-powered spotlights we shine on the memorial.”

Executives: “Why didn’t you just tell us that before we ordered the insecticides?”

Maintenance crew: “Sorry, boss.  You didn’t ask.”

The executives could answer their last few questions on their own.

“Why do we shine the lights?”

“So the tourists will come to see the memorial.”

“Why do we want the tourists to come?”

“Because they bring their money and spend it in our city.”

This was a problem they weren’t willing to solve.  They decided that they needed to call in their subject-matter experts one last time.

Executives: “Is there anything we can do about the lights so that there won’t be so many bugs.”

Maintenance crew: “Sure, turn the lights on later in the evenings and off earlier in the mornings.”

This, as it turned out, was a brilliant idea!  The lights were typically turned on two hours before sunset and turned off two hours after sunrise.

By waiting until 30 minutes after sunset to turn them on and turning them off 30 minutes before sunrise, they were able to both save significant money on electricity and also reduce the amount of bugs by 90%.

The insects, assuming that the Lincoln Memorial was closed for business, decided to relocate and spent their evenings with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose memorials turned on their lights earlier in the evening.

Less bugs meant less spiders.

Less spiders meant less birds.

Less birds meant less droppings.

Less droppings meant less washings.

Less washings meant less deterioration of the stone on the outside of the memorial.

The executives were happy.  The maintenance crew was happy, and most importantly, the tourists were happy.  On the downside, Washington and Jefferson still aren’t speaking to Lincoln.



Filed under Decision Making, Problem Solving

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Three blind men came across an elephant one day.  Each one of them encountered a different part of the animal: one the trunk, one a leg and one the tail.  Upon inspecting the animal from their individual vantage points, each came to a very different conclusion about what they were up against.

Said the one at the trunk, “My friends, this is obviously a large and powerful snake.

Said the one at a leg, “No, no!  It can’t be a snake.  It must be a tree.

Said the one at the tail, “I honestly can’t figure how you’ve come to your conclusions!  It most definitely is a lion we’ve run into.  I suggest we move along quickly!

And so it is with many of the things we come up against.  With limited information, we rush to a conclusion.  We are so convinced of our point of view that we won’t listen to the perspective of others.  Very few of us take the time to inspect “the elephant” from every angle, and so what we believe to be true is only part of the truth.

If, on the other hand, we took the time to get to know why those with different opinions hold the opinions they do, we might learn a little more about “the animal.”  If we sought first to understand before we tried to be understood, we might get enough information to make a more correct judgment.  Most people are willing to listen to your point of view if you’ve first heard them out sincerely.  In the transfer of information and ideas about the problem, you might both come away with a broader and more accurate perspective.

Recognize that we all have a bit of blindness on any issue in which we come into disagreement.  We know our perspective, but we shouldn’t hold that we have a lock on the truth until we have seen the issue from the perspective of the other person.  In the end, none are so blind as those who choose not to see.


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Filed under belief, conflict, creativity, Decision Making, Discernment, expertise, focus, learning, paradigm, paradigm shift, Problem Solving, selective perception

The Genuine Article

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are world-renowned for their ability to spot counterfeit currency.  They undergo hour after hour of training in the Academy to help them identify the frauds.  By the time a new Mounty graduates, he is able to distinguish a counterfeit bill in an instant.  What’s unusual about their training methods is that in all the hours of instruction, a Mounty never sees a counterfeit bill.  All the training is spent entirely on studying authentic currency.

Why?  Because by becoming experts in recognizing the genuine article, they can easily pick out the pretenders.

What if we had the clarity of the Mounties when we were interviewing candidates to fill positions on our teams?  We could easily separate those who were qualified from those who weren’t.  Our problem is that we don’t know what the genuine article looks like.  Sure, we have a general idea, but that’s much too vague to be of use when we are sitting across the table from a professional interviewer (someone who’s read the books, anticipated your vague and overused interview questions and practiced her answers in front of a mirror).  We rely on gut feelings, but too often they disappoint.  What we need is clear and specific criteria that surface the best candidates.

And where can you find clear and specific criteria?  For tactical skills and knowledge (i.e., negotiation skills, time management skills, analytical skills, etc…) study the job.  What does a person in this position have to be able to do to be successful?  What does he need to know?  For personal characteristics (i.e., integrity, ability to deal with conflict, willingness to learn or to work with a team, etc…), study high performers.  What makes them successful?  How do they handle challenges?  How do they respond to change?

Throw out interview questions like,

  • “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”
  • “Where do you want to be in five years?”
  • “Tell me about yourself.”
  • “What was your favorite subject in school?”
  • “What hobbies do you have?”
  • “Why should I hire you?”

They are old, tired and tell you very little.  Instead, ask questions that are strategic and well-thought out to determine if the person has what is required:

  • “Tell me about a time when you had competing priorities.  How did you deal with the conflict?”
  • “Describe a time when you had to make a decision with insufficient information.  What did you do?”
  • “Share with me a situation in which you found you had to execute a decision that was unpopular.  How did you handle it?”

The Mounties know a counterfeit when they see one, because they know what’s required for authenticity.  If you want to be able to separate the “counterfeit” from the qualified, don’t worry about all the ways an interview candidate might try to fool you.  The tricks and techniques of the dishonest candidates will change faster than you can keep up with them.  Know what you are looking for, and the pretenders will be easy to recognize.

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Filed under Authenticity, Decision Making, Discernment

Fire Fighting

If you were to analyze what firemen do during the course of the year, what percentage of their time do you suppose would be devoted to actually fighting fires?  Would you believe me if I told you that it’s actually only 2% of their time?

So what do they do with all their time?  True, a good deal of their time is spent sitting around the fire station, but that’s necessary so that they can be available in the event of an emergency.  The rest of their time is spent in fire prevention.  I found a fireman’s job description on the web.  Here are some of their typical responsibilities:

  • Cleaning, preparing and testing hoses, fire trucks and other equipment
  • Testing water flow on fire hydrants
  • Determining what caused fires that couldn’t be prevented
  • Holding fire prevention workshops
  • Inspecting buildings, sprinkler systems and extinguishers
  • Speaking to children about fire prevention
  • Participating in fire drills
  • Attending training classes in fire fighting, first-aid, and related subjects

Spending all that time on prevention helps reduce the number of fires they are called to put out.  Plus, lives and property are saved.  No matter how much time or money they have to invest in fire prevention, it has to be cheaper than the cost of the fire fighting and destruction that occurs when fires aren’t prevented.

Many of us spend a greater percentage of our time and efforts putting out fires than the typical fireman.  Could it be that many of the fires that erupt in our schedules are a result of poor fire prevention?  Maybe we are not spending enough time in planning and preparation.  Maybe we’ve allowed key relationships to suffer from lack of attention.  Maybe we’re so tired from fighting those fires that we don’t feel we have anything left to invest in learning how to prevent them.  Maybe we’ve just resigned ourselves to the fact that we will always have to spend most of our time fighting fires.

The truth is that most of our fires are preventable.  But like the firemen, we have to get ahead of them.  We have to learn the most common sources of our fires and put plans in place to prevent them.  We have to educate ourselves about how much the fires are costing us in emotional and physical stress, missed opportunities, unfulfilled commitments and quality.  It’s time to stop playing productivity pyromania.  As Benjamin Franklin (the founder of the first volunteer fire department, inventor of the lighting rod and fire insurance) once said,  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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Filed under Challenges, creativity, Decision Making, delayed gratification, learned helplessness, performance, planning, Preparation, priorities, Prioritize, Priority, Problem Solving, Productivity, Sharpening the Saw

It Grows On You!

Kudzu is a hearty and leafy vine that grows quickly and abundantly in the southeast part of the United States.  It grows so fast that those in the South quip that, “You might be a Southerner if… you’ve ever lost a loved one to kudzu.”  Kudzu covers everything it comes in contact with.  As you drive through a kudzu state, the roadside is draped with it, and you can only vaguely make out the shapes of trees, fences, small buildings, farmers…

With a name like “kudzu,” it’s obvious that it’s not indigenous to the U.S., so where did it come from?  In 1876, the nation of Japan originally brought it as a “gift” to the United States to celebrate the U.S.’s 100th birthday at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, the government realized that the dense root system of kudzu would be an excellent deterrent to soil erosion.  The Civil Conservation Corps paid hundreds of unemployed men to plant the vine throughout the South.  Farmers were paid as much as $8 an acre to plant entire fields of kudzu in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

But by the 1950s, rapid growth of the plant (it grows a foot each day) had started to cool the government’s enthusiasm for what had been dubbed, “the miracle vine.”  They stopped advocating it altogether, and by 1970, the USDA had officially declared kudzu a “noxious weed.”  It had now earned the new nicknames of “mile-a-minute vine,” “foot-a-night vine” and “the vine that ate the South.”

But it was too late to pull back support.  Such large amounts of kudzu had been planted that it soon began to interfere with the growth of crops and destroy forest land.  Kudzu vines were so heavy that they often brought down power lines and even collapsed small buildings.  Kudzu was taking over.

Today, kudzu covers seven million acres of land in the Southeast, and it’s not going away anytime soon.  For years, we have been trying to find a herbicide that will kill the plant.  It’s highly resistant to poisoning, and most experts agree that it takes a concerted and persistent ten-year effort to kill just one patch of kudzu.  Even then, it’s likely to come back unless the patch is watched and treated regularly.  Current estimates put kudzu management costs at more than $50 million each year!

All this happened because the government broke one of the cardinal rules of problem solving.  They didn’t consider the long-term effects of their solution.  Some solutions create problems that are bigger than the original problem they were intended to solve.  What looked like an effective treatment of soil erosion and unemployment during the Great Depression was really a long-term relationship with a fast-growing, all-consuming predator weed.  Had we asked Japan about the growing conditions of the vine before we spread it all over the South, we might have realized that Japan’s climate and certain natural insect enemies help to naturally keep the vine at manageable levels.

I know what you’re thinking…    but before we start importing those natural insect enemies to take care of the problem we already have, consider a potential headline 50 years from now:

“The Insect That Ate the South!”

Beware the “quick-fix.”  It comes with small print (and creeping vines).

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Filed under Challenges, Decision Making, helping, Instant Gratification, leadership, management, overcoming obstacles, Problem Solving

The Franklin Decision-Maker

In a letter to Joseph Priestly (the English scientist who discovered oxygen), Benjamin Franklin once commented about a perplexing decision that Priestly was wrestling with. Franklin wrote to his chemist friend that the problem of deciding was caused by the fact that our minds can’t examine both sides of an issue at one time.

To help solve the dilemma, Franklin shared that he often divided a sheet of paper into two columns and labeled one Pro and the other Con. Then in the course of three or four days, he would write in each column any arguments for that side.  By the end of the week, he had a clear picture of the issue and could make a decision easily.  Often the column with the longest list was the best decision.  Occasionally, though, one column would have an argument that carried more weight than all the arguments on the other side.  Either way, Franklin was able to evaluate both sides of the issue at once.

You’ve probably used this method to make decisions.  (If you are in sales, you’ve probably used it to close a sale.)  Remember it the next time you’ve got a particularly tough decision to make.

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Filed under Challenges, Decision Making, Problem Solving