Category Archives: Problem Solving

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.

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Filed under Decision Making, Problem Solving

Breaking Out of the Silos (EXERCISE)


Purpose

This activity helps participants to challenge silo mentalities by forcing them to work collaboratively to complete a task.  The task is a painting task, in which each team (or individual) will only receive some of the colors they need to finish.  In order to meet all the requirements of the task, they will have to negotiate for resources from other teams or individuals.

 

Setup

  • Give each team (or individual, depending upon the size of your group) several colors of paint (poster paints work well).
  • Teams or individuals should get different color combinations so that no one group or individual has everything that he or she needs.  Recommended color combinations are:
    • Team #1 – Black, white, red and yellow
    • Team #2 – Black, white, blue and yellow
    • Team #3 – Black, white, green and yellow
    • Team #4 – Black, white, red and blue
  • Give each team or individual enough paintbrushes for each team member to participate in the painting, a large sheet of paper (a flipchart works well for groups), something to mix their paint on (a piece of cardboard or a paper plate) and several small cups with water in them for rinsing the paint brush.

Timing

Explaining the Exercise: 5 minutes.

Activity: 20 minutes

Debrief: 15 minutes.

 

Procedure

  • Tell participants that they are going to work in their teams to produce a work of art with the supplies that you have given them.
  • To be judged successful, each team or individual must paint a picture of Noah’s Ark complete with the rainbow that was God’s promise never to flood the earth again. (You can choose another theme if you like; the only essential element is the rainbow, because it uses all the color combinations that will force the teams to break out of their silos.)
  • The rainbow must be at least one-third of the picture, and it must contain all the colors of a rainbow (which can be remembered with the acronym ROYGBIV – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).
  • The picture must fill the paper.
  • They will have 20 minutes to complete their paintings.
  • (After they begin, observe how they solve the problem of not having all the right color combinations for the rainbow.  You may want to bring out your observations during the debrief.  When the 20 minutes are up, have the groups answer the debrief questions below.  Then, discuss their insights as a large group.  Emphasize the need to share limited resources so that everyone could succeed.  This is not a competitive activity.)

Debrief

  • How did you resolve the problem of not having enough colors to make all the colors of the rainbow?
  • How willing were the other teams to share their paint with you?
  • How willing were you to share your paint with them?
  • Why was this difficult at times?
  • How is this like sharing limited resources in the work environment?
  • What could you do to make it more likely that individuals and groups would share their resources for the greater good of the organization?

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Filed under Abundance, generosity, overcoming obstacles, performance, Problem Solving, Productivity, Resources, Scarcity, team

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 Orange War


The story was once told of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, neighbors who shared an orange tree.  The orange tree actually belonged to Mr. Smith (it grew on his side of the property line), but Mr. Jones would frequently help himself to the oranges that hung over on his side of the fence.  This irritated Mr. Smith to no end, and the two men had frequent arguments about who had rights to the oranges that overhung Mr. Jones’ yard.

The feud continued for years until both men had had enough.  Mr. Smith filed suit in small claims court, and Mr. Jones counter-sued.  The judge listened to both sides of their argument and swiftly proclaimed his judgment.  If the men couldn’t agree about the ownership of the oranges, the tree was to be cut down.  His judgment was promptly executed, and the two men soon found themselves without oranges altogether.  In the place of the beautiful orange tree, they now had an ugly stump to remind them of the bitterness of their feud.

Years passed before the men spoke again.  But, as the saying goes, time heals all wounds.  One afternoon, Mr. Jones saw Mr. Smith watering his yard and approached him.  Right then and there, they buried the hatchet and agreed to let go of their resentment.  Over time, they even became good friends.

When it felt safe enough, Mr. Smith asked why they never were able to get along about that old orange tree.  That opened the discussion, and the two men started talking – not about who had rights to the oranges, but about what they wanted them for in the first place.  What they learned was that Mr. Smith loved his oranges for freshly-squeezed orange juice, while Mr. Jones loved them for making potpourri out of the rinds.  Both men could have had what they wanted from the oranges if they had only been willing to let go of their positions and talk about their needs.

Initially, both Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith were only interested in winning the fight about the oranges.  They were going for win-lose, which seemed to them as the only possibility – “if he gets the oranges, then I don’t.”  But if they had been willing to look for a win-win solution, they would have started thinking creatively about how both their needs could have been met.  This would have inevitably led them to the discussion of why they wanted the oranges, and a better solution would have emerged.  As it happened, they both had to settle for lose-lose when the judge ordered the tree cut down.

Instead of focusing on who’s right and who’s wrong when you encounter conflict, try telling the other person that you want to work toward win-win and ask,

  • “Why is it important to you to have this particular solution?”
  • “What happens if you don’t get it?”
  • “Are there any alternatives that would be a good substitute?”

When you start talking about your needs instead of your positions, you identify things the two of you have in common.  It takes commitment and vulnerability, but it might save the orange tree you’ve been fighting over.

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Filed under Abundance, Compromise, conflict, creativity, delayed gratification, Goals, Interpersonal, Problem Solving, Relationships, Scarcity, trust

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

Crazy Maisie


Maisie DeVore had a vision.  She wanted to build a community pool for children to enjoy.  She was worried that there weren’t enough positive and healthy activities for kids in her hometown of Eskridge, Kansas, and she felt that the pool was just the thing they needed.

But she had a problem.  Money.  Maisie decided the best way to earn the money was by collecting aluminum cans and turning them in for recycling.  She began searching for them all around town – in trash cans, behind bushes, along roadsides.  When that didn’t net enough cash, she began collecting scrap metal, then making and raffling quilts, then picking wild berries to sell as homemade jellies.

Her neighbors thought she was crazy.  “Hide the toaster!  Maisie’s looking for scrap metal again.”

Her family thought she was crazy.  Said one, “I never came right out and told her I thought she was nuts, but I said, ‘You know Maisie, are you gonna be okay with this if it doesn’t happen?’”

In truth, no one but Maisie thought she would ever see ground broken on the pool.  But that was all the belief she needed.  She collected cans, scrap metal and berries until she had earned $100,000 ($83,000 from the 90 tons of aluminum cans she found).  When the state of Kansas got wind of what she had done, they kicked in a grant of $73,000 to make up the difference.  It wasn’t long before the pool was going in right across the street from Maisie’s home.

As you may have guessed, Maisie didn’t raise that much money overnight.  It took her 30 years!  During that time, Maisie kept her focus on her ultimate goal.  She withstood the teasing and the gossip and put in the incredibly hard work required to see it through.  Now, her neighbors don’t call her “Crazy Maisie” anymore.  As dozens of kids enjoy playing in “Maisie’s Community Pool” each day, all the neighbors call her “Amazing Maisie!”

(S – “Making a Splash,” CBSNews.com, 7/14/02)

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Filed under Abundance, Attitude, belief, Challenges, commitment, creativity, dedication, delayed gratification, determination, overcoming obstacles, Persistence, Problem Solving, sacrifice, Serving Others, success

Spud-tacular and A-mash-ing!


The next time your team is faced with an “impossible” goal, try using this visual object lesson to help challenge their disbelief.  You will need a large potato (raw) and a sturdy straw (not the bendable kind) for every person on your team.  Once everyone has a potato and a straw, go through the following steps to impress and amaze:

  • Tell your team that not everything that looks impossible really is.  For example, you hold that it is possible for every one of them to put a straw through a potato (gasps indicating shock and awe!).
  • Ask each team member to stand and hold the potato at naval (that’s your bellybutton) level with their non-dominant hand.  (Fingers should go on the sides of the potato and not on the top or the bottom.  Neglecting this detail could result in an equally neat but somewhat messier object lesson.)
  • Have them hold the straw with their dominant hand.
  • Ask them to put their thumb over the top opening of the straw.
  • Have them visualize the straw going through the potato in their mind’s eye.  (They may need to do this several times in order to squash all unbelief.)
  • When they are ready, have them quickly thrust the straw through the potato.  It should go through cleanly.  (More gasps and some fainting.)
  • Point out that just like they put the straw through the potato, they can accomplish the “impossible” goal.  However, it won’t work unless they believe they can do it and fully commit to making it happen.

I could explain the complex physics behind the demonstration, but why?  Isn’t it enough that it works and has the power to elevate you to legendary status among the dynamic leaders of the world?

 

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Filed under Attitude, belief, Challenges, Change, coaching, creativity, determination, expectations, Goals, innovation, Just for fun, learned helplessness, motivation, overcoming obstacles, paradigm shift, Problem Solving, success