Problem solving

The way those organisations working under the umbrella of continuous improvement deal with problems.

Most organisations that work under the umbrella of a system of continuous improvement,using their methodologies in all their breadth, consider the dynamics of problem solving as one more tool in the whole catalogue of improvement oriented towards the analysis, diagnosis and resolution of problems with a certain complexity. However, it should be noted that this interpretation is misleading as it indirectly suggests that only those problems labelled as complex by the company require methodological treatment.

Problem solving is not and should not be treated as an improvement tool. On the contrary. The main objective of these techniques, systematically applied in any undesired situation, is to promote a certain way of thinking. It is so important that any organisation should make it an essential milestone for all staff to know and apply these techniques in their daily work.

Organisations aspiring to excellence devote a great deal of resources to developing their employees’ competencies and skills so that they acquire this mindset: a set of guidelines, procedures and techniques which help the brain to make decisions. Toyota’s mantra is clear: «before building things, we must develop people»(monozukuri wa hitozukuri”).

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Method and discipline to achieve results

To understand the need to instil these new patterns, it is necessary to understand how the brain’s internal reasoning processes work.

The human brain has two types of thinking, each of which operates by diametrically opposed rationales. The first system is intuitive, automatic and fast. It acts instinctively to a stimulus without waiting for the individual to consciously decide what response to articulate. It is very useful because it allows you to react to complex situations with very little energy consumption.

The second system is slow, thoughtful and conscious. It is used to deal with complex decisions or actions which the individual does not have automated. It requires a lot of energy and a conscious activity of reflection which allows you to decide on the actions to be taken.

When an individual wants to learn a new skill or behaviour, they engage in the first practices by basing their decisions and actions on reflective processes. As they become more proficient in the discipline, they automate certain processes to such an extent that, in many cases, professionals who have acquired a great deal of experience in a given discipline rely on their instinct for the entire decision-making process, i.e. the automatic system.

Everyone can train their automatic system with commitment and effort. It is a process which requires a skill to be repeated with sufficient tenacity until decision-making and performance are automated.

In general, when an individual is confronted with new disciplines or activities, the brain unconsciously encourages the practice of those aspects which can be automated in order to improve efficiency in the execution of these activities, both in terms of time and energy consumption.

In short, when faced with a decision-making process and provided that the individual has previous experience in a related activity, the brain activates the unconscious system by applying a set of automatisms whose implementation allows it to achieve an efficient result for the problem posed.

From all that has been explained up to this point, we can conclude that, when facing a given problem, a healthy brain tries to reach a result efficiently by applying a set of automatic processes that are very helpful in achieving the objective set.

However, in certain cases, it may happen that the brain activates this automatic system when the conditions of the problem to be treated are not appropriate. In these situations, these automatic procedures will inevitably lead the individual to a completely wrong outcome.

Reasoning biases

The very beneficial automatisms we have described become what we call reasoning defects in situations in which they should not be applied: when the set of patterns on which they are based prevents us from understanding reality to the extent of denying it. Professor M. May has studied all these defects over the years and has identified seven different categories:

  • Mental leap. This first defect or reasoning bias is one of the resources that the brain uses the most in order to always and in all cases elaborate an answer, even when it should not. In situations where it does not have all the information it needs to make a decision, the brain looks for a reference, either to complete the information available or to establish a comparison between the situation in question and a known reference to help it make decisions. The problem with this reasoning bias is that the individual ends up acting on the basis of information which does not always coincide with the real situation.

  • Obsession. The brain is an avid pattern consumer. In a given situation, it tries to identify the patterns governing its functioning. Then, using his past experiences with the functioning of the identified pattern, it extrapolates them to the present case. Unfortunately, it is very likely that the brain does not notice small differences between reality and known patterns, which leads to the application of erroneous solutions.

  • Over-thinking. Another frequently occurring defect in reasoning is to get stuck in developing solutions to problems. This is what we call over-thinking. The brain bases its decisions on a linear or temporal evolution of problems. Therefore, according to this approach, problem solving is a future act which occurs as a consequence of applying a response to an undesired situation. Using this reasoning, it is common for the individual to concentrate more on what they believe should be implemented than on the objective to be achieved, reaching an extreme in which the individual works on the development of solutions to non-existent problems.

  • Sufficiency. In all its actions, the brain strives for maximum efficiency. Consequently, it rarely devotes effort to exploring alternatives to solve a problem when it already has a solution which minimally satisfies the required criteria. We understand sufficiency as the attitude shown by an individual who is satisfied with the first solution found to solve a problem.

  • Degraded expectations. Another defect in reasoning is to limit expectations to a comforting minimum. The fear of error or even worse, the fear of not meeting more ambitious objectives leads us to forecast results on the basis of what satisfies acceptable minimums instead of determining those minimums on the basis of real needs.

  • It was not invented here. Another very human reaction is to reject everything coming from the outside. Faced with innovations made by others, the individual tends to devote all their energies to justify their own position, arguing the proposal’s shortcomings coming from outside, instead of devoting their energies to making an effort to understand the benefits that such an innovation might provide.

  • Self-censorship. Finally, the last of the reasoning biases is self-censorship. There are multiple psychological arguments explaining the individual’s need for acceptance within a collective. In many cases, this need for acceptance leads the individual to give an opinion based on what they believe others think about a specific issue instead of expressing their own criteria in an open and transparent way.

Problem solving is a routine...

All these reasoning biases occur mainly when the brain tries to deal with complex problems by using the automatic system as the only way to efficiently solve the problem.

For all these reasons and in view of this perspective, it is necessary to have a methodology that, applied systematically, forces the brain to work on the problem using a reflexive system. A methodology which is applied extensively by all staff in the same organisation.

If you want to incorporate innovation into your daily business, we can help you design the systems you need. We will be happy to guide you through this transformation.