Bust Your Car?
EYE - April 24 - 30, 2011
Some lessons in problem solving
When I was a student at IIM-Ahmedabad, my professors were obsessed with what they called "problem-solving skills". "Problem identification" was a pet theme that ran across all the courses, be it accounting, human resources, quantitative methods or a horrible one - WAC - "written analysis and communication", which gave everyone a C because they either did not know the problem or wrote like they did not know it. The professor teaching a marketing case about why popsicles were not selling would look at me with a mean glint, and say, "Miss Rao, what you just described is the apparent problem. What do you think the real problem could be?" I would look blankly at him and he would, through a painful process of Socratic inquiry, also known as pulling teeth, steer me degree by degree, from the apparent to the real problem. Then, he would turn to the poor idiot sitting behind me, and ask him how to analyse the identified problem
Only after copious analysis which led to choice of alternative solutions; critical hypotheses, on which the choice would be based, and treasure -hunt- like data searches through the case to validate those hypotheses, would the solution to the problem start to get discussed.
In business meetings today, unfortunately, a lot of time gets spent on debating solutions and very little time on discussing or diagnosing the problem. In fact, it is deemed distinctly unfashionable in today's fastpaced would, with a bias for action and quarterly results, to discuss a problem instead of leaping to instant action.
A famous story on problem-solving is about the customer who reported to his car company (GM, I think) that there was something wrong with his car. The man said, "When I go to the ice cream shop to buy vanilla ice cream, my car always starts on my return with no fuss. But when I go to the shop to buy butterscotch ice cream, it gives me a lot of starting trouble, on my return." The customer care people dismissed him as a crank. Whatever did flavour of ice cream bought have to do with the car starting! Except for the one engineer who decided to check it out. He realized that the customer's observation was correct, and eventually, after a lot of analysis, realized that vanilla, being a popular flavour, was stored in the front of the ice cream shop, while butterscotch was stored in the back since it was a less of a popular flavour, So, in winter, the car engine got cold as it waited outside, and did not start when butterscotch was bought.
Some thing along the same line happened when I bought a new Nokia Phone recently. I am a touch-screen phone aficionado, and after I started using it, I found that I was suddenly putting people on hold or muting myself or worse. The nadir was reached when I was on a long and chatty call with a friend close to midnight, and the phone automatically dialed the last two numbers I had spoken to earlier, one of them being the chairman of a board that I sit on, who was probably wondering whether this was an overzealous independent director, who had just gotten around to reading the board papers the night before the meeting and had a request.
I asked my niece why the phone was behaving strangely and she said, "It probably is because of the extra sharp ears that you have, which are activating all the buttons on the touch-screen." I called Nokia and they sent me a young engineer with a crew cut, and lots of tech-savvy. "No ma'am," he said. Not possible. Look, as I hold my hand a few inches away from the touch-screen, the screen automatically blanks out, because it has high-tech sensors, which are trained to recognize skin and blank out the screen. He put the phone close to his ear, and took it off and showed me how it worked. I asked him to see if the phone did the same with my ears, and found that it did not.
Maybe my niece was right. I do have misshapen ears. But, eventually, I realised that when my hair was tied back in a bun, the phone behaved well; when it was left open, it behaved badly. No, this is not the phone my orthodox, anti-open-hair, South Indian mother has trained. It has a faulty sensor that senses skin and not hair, which is designed for men with crew cuts, and not for women with fly-away hair worn loosely around the ears.
My favourite cartoon on the subject, which I used in the opening session of my course at IIM-A, was of a Red Indian going into Medicine Man's tent. "Please Mr Medicine Man, I have pain all over my body." Pokes his head with his index finger and says, "See, It pains here." Pokes his stomach with his finger and says, "and here too", and so on all over his body. Cut to the next box in the comic strip, and we see the Red Indian emerging form Medicine Man's tent with - a bandaged index finger!.