Problem Solving

Otis Redding wrote the song “Respect” in 1965.  Aretha Franklin made it mainstream in 1967.

Respect is clearly important.  Most people, I think, want to be able to both give and get respect.  But giving and getting respect is not easy.  Indeed, some of our most painful moments may come when we recognize that we are not respected, or when we fail to respect other people.

One of the times when we can fail to either earn or show respect is when we are responding to an idea.  We respond to ideas all the time.

For example, when you submit a resume to a company in hopes of landing a job, you’re really presenting them with an idea (“You should hire me!”)  How they respond to that idea is almost certainly going to change how you view that company.  If they treat you with real respect, even if they don’t offer you a job, you’ll probably still respect them.  But if they treat you like dirt, well, then you’ll probably have a very negative view of that company going forward.

Of course, if you’re part of an organization, you will both offer ideas and be asked to respond to ideas.  I think all of us have been in situations where someone has come to us with an idea and we hesitate to give them a response.  Why do we hesitate?  As it turns out, there’s a good reason for it!

And finally, what if you are in the position of wanting to offer an idea to someone else?  Maybe someone you really care about, someone who you desperately want to help.  In these situations, offering an idea can carry all kinds of risk.  One of the risks is emotional.  It can hurt when we offer what we believe is an excellent idea only to have it ignored or rejected out of hand.

My good friend Mike Round sent me this poem,  Please check it out, paying special attention to the last two lines:

He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven
by William Butler Yeats

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I believe that how we respond to the ideas people bring to us has a huge effect on our personal success and the satisfaction we receive from our work.  If we respond to ideas in a good way we will greatly improve our interpersonal relationships and, ultimately, come to earn real respect from others.  On the other hand, if we respond poorly to ideas offered to us, is it surprising that we would not gain the respect of others?

I think this subject is also important in being able to understand how people will often react to ideas we bring to them.  While I don’t think we can completely eliminate the sting of having our ideas ignored by someone we are trying to help, understanding what’s going on under the surface can help us to properly process the situation and ultimately let go of our anger.

Dr. Goldratt shares his insightful analysis of this subject in his “Satellite Series” of presentations. He did this set of presentations years ago but I still find them invaluable. If you have the opportunity to do so, I think they are worth seeing.

So what is it that makes giving a proper response to an idea so difficult? It is that responding to an idea usually puts us into a conflict (a dilemma.)

Let’s say that you want to respond in the best possible way to ideas that people bring to you. What does it really mean to respond “in the best way?”

Dr. Goldratt identified two necessary conditions.

The first necessary condition for a good response is to ensure that if the idea is implemented, it will not lead to negative outcomes. Said differently, if the idea is implemented, it must bring about a net improvement in the performance of the system itself.

The second necessary condition is that a good response cannot hurt, or damage, the relationships between the person bringing the idea (the “inventor”) and the person to whom the idea is being presented (the “evaluator.”)

Is it clear that we have to achieve both of these conditions in order to be “giving a good response” to someone’s idea? Allowing bad ideas to be implemented cannot be said to be giving a good response. And yet, at the same time, offending someone who is simply trying to help improve the system is also not a good response.

If people always brought us good ideas, there would be no conflict, no dilemma, no problem to speak of. But isn’t it almost always the case that when someone brings us an idea, we have some reservations about it? Maybe we believe that implementing the idea would lead to some bad things, but we can’t immediately say what those bad things are. And even if we can identify some concerns regarding the idea, aren’t we very careful about how we share our concerns with the inventor? Why are we careful? Why do we try to choose exactly the right words? Because we care about the relationship with the inventor. We recognize that he or she might have spent weeks, months or even years thinking about the idea. So we treat it with great care.

Dr. Goldratt has said that “Ignoring a person’s idea is a rude form of disrespect.” I fully agree with this.

If you disagree, please consider the “Town Hall” meetings that were held earlier this summer. Where is all of this anger coming from? I belive it is coming, in part, from a sense on the part of ordinary citizens that their government has not been listening to their ideas (their suggestions, their complaints) for many, many years. The citizens can see what’s happening. And yet, when they present their ideas and concerns, those ideas and concerns are largely ignored. The government, in other words, is responding in a way that is “a rude form of disrespect.”

When you want to share an idea with someone, is it fair to say that you are enthusiastic about the idea? Probably, and usually, the more you have thought and sweated over the idea and its details, the more enthusiastic you become. If the idea seems to be a good one, you might even take some big risks in terms of presenting the idea.

I once had a powerful idea for a client of mine. The idea was so good that I risked getting fired in order to present the idea to the client’s Executive Committee. Do you know how big a risk that was? I jumped about four levels in the command hierarchy to do that. It was a huge risk. Fortunately, the idea was so good that I did not lose my job as a result of it. But I still paid a high price for doing it. And I will probably never take such a risk again for that client.

As the inventor, not only will you often be enthusiastic, but you will often tend to focus on the benefits of implementing the idea (“This is going to be so great ….”) and you will tend to be blind to any problems that would result by implementing the idea. When people ignore the negative ramifications of their ideas, we often call this “hand waving.” It means not giving a satisfactory answer to a perceived problem with the idea.

If inventors are usually blind to the problems that their ideas will create, then when someone brings you an idea, it’s quite likely that you will recognize those negatives. You will, in fact, have valid reasons for wanting to criticize the idea.

And yet, if the inventor is enthusiastic about the idea and expects that it will bring big benefits, then he or she is almost certainly expecting to be praised for the idea. When presenting the idea the inventor does not expect to be criticized; he or she expects profuse thanks.

So now the final elements of the confict are clear. When someone brings you an idea, it’s often the case that you find yourself having to criticize the idea and, at the very same time, praise it. Criticize the idea so that the negative aspects of it are identified and hopefully corrected. Praise it in order to maintain good relations with the inventor of the idea.

It might seem as if there is no solution to this dilemma. Isn’t praising something exactly the reverse of criticizing it?

As he always does, Dr. Goldatt has a solution to this dilemma. I’ll talk about that solution in my next blog post. Perhaps, in the mean time, you can think of your own solutions to this dilemma.


I have said for years that TOC applies to software engineering, even once going so far as to write a somewhat tedious article (warning: pdf) on applying the Evaporating Cloud to software engineering. In fact, I once showed it to a really bright guy who is now the CEO of a respectable company.  He said, “It’s good, but you didn’t give the answers.”  Perhaps that shows the degree to which I missed the mark.  The paper wasn’t about giving answers to specific problems in software engineering; it was about sharing a general technique for problem solving.  Oh well.

At any rate, here’s an interesting post and video for folks interested in Agile and systems improvement methodologies like TOC and Lean.

I still attend meetings of our City Council. How much longer I will attend I don’t know.

These good people are caught in chronic conflict. They are divided into two tribes. Contentious votes usually come out 4 to 3. Being in the minority sucks because you lose every critical vote.  But being in the majority also sucks, as Roberts Rules of Order ensures that each tribe has plenty of time to attack each other verbally.

I found this diagram interesting:

I have a little theory.  I’d welcome your thoughts on it.

Let’s say your a member of the Council.  You go to a meeting one Monday night and for three or four hours, you’re the verbal punching bag for the other tribe.  You try to defend yourself, but everything you say is twisted and distorted into all manner of false claims.  Roberts Rules of Order prevents you from responding to their comments as they are being made.  You have to sit patiently, and smile, while the other guy is painting you as a modern-day Charles Manson.

When it’s finally your turn to talk again, you can’t help but want to get a little payback.  So you respond in kind.  Now, it’s someone else’s turn to sit there and take it.

This goes on, as I said, for three or four hours.  Finally, it’s time to go home.

But wait, you’re not done yet.  You go home and recount the evening’s events to your spouse.  You maybe spend half an hour or more going over what happened, who said what to whom, etc.  Finally, it’s time for bed.

So you climb into bed, and you replay the evening’s events in your mind again and again as you try to fall asleep.  Eventually, you fall asleep, but your hard-working brain is still at it.  It’s busy trying to make sense of all of the events of the day, trying to consolidate them into memories and beliefs that will help you and it to survive.  So while you are sleeping, your brain is writing this kind of stuff in your neurons and neural pathways :  Members of the other tribe are the enemy.  Members of the other tribe cannot be trusted.  I should never collaborate with members of the other tribe.  I should try to kill the members of the other tribe.

In the morning you wake up and try to go about your week.  Fortunately, you have a prefrontal cortex, and so you don’t act on every negative belief you hold.  You might fantasize, briefly, about injuring members of the other tribe, but you don’t act out those thoughts.  But of course, during the week, you’re still thinking about what happened last Monday night.  It still bugs you and you definitely don’t want to have it happen again.  So, you start planning.  As you’re planning, you’re replaying your memories of what happened that night. With each replay, the idea that members of the other tribe are “the enemy” are reinforced.  The connections in your brain change physically.  New neural connections are made and the “sensitivities” neurons are adjusted to reflect your now-more-strident beliefs.

So what happens next Monday?  When you see the members of the other tribe, your ever-faithful brain prepares you for the fight it knows is coming.  Hormones are released.  Your heart-rate and respiration goes up as your body prepares itself for the fight.  Mentally, you’re on guard for the attacks that you just know will be coming.

In this heightened state of guardedness even a neutral statement by a member of the other tribe will be interpreted as hostile.  So even if, by some miracle, a member of the other tribe tries to be polite and respectful, you will misinterpret it.  In fact, it’s going to be almost impossible for the members of the other tribe to say or do anything to “change your mind” about them.  Even if they go out of their way to be polite, your very clever brain is going to say “I think I’m being set-up.”

So how to escape such a situation?

I certainly think competent therapy would help.  Perhaps Council meetings should be moderated by a disinterested third party until the Council members have done the self-work necessary to break free of their addiction (yes, addiction) to seeing the members of the other tribe as the enemy.

It is also the case that using the Thinking Process tools would be helpful in breaking this kind of behavior.  Now that I think about it, when the Thinking Process tools are properly used, they do act as a “moderator” who serves to keep the whole process on track and focused on solving problems versus fighting.

So this is my thinking.  What should I change about it?  What seems wrong or bogus to you?

I remember watching “I Love Lucy” when I was a young boy.  I was watching re-runs, but it was the mid-sixties and I have fond memories of watching that show, along with others, like “Andy Griffith” and the “Beverly Hillbillies” with my mom, whenever I was sick and staying home from school.

The video associated with this post is one of Lucy and Ethel working in a candy factory.  It’s a good video and I hope you’ll watch it.  If you do watch it, perhaps you will recognize some parallels to the subject of this post.

I’d like to offer you an alternative view of the City of Woodinville.  That view is of the City of Woodinville as a problem-solving machine (or problem-solving system, if you prefer.)

In my view, the City solves problems on behalf of its citizens. For example, let’s say that you are a citizen, and your neighbor is collecting junk cars and leaving them in his front yard. You may contact the City and ask them to do something about this problem of yours. If they solve it to your satisfaction, then the City acted in this instance essentially as your problem-solving machine. Of course, the City may have created a problem for your neighbor, but you are probably happy to have the issue resolved.

When I attend City Council meetings I see our good and capable Council Members working to solve problems on our behalf. I also see them interacting with a highly capable and involved City Staff.

The problem-solving machine today runs at some rate. Every so often, the machine takes a problem from a pile of problems waiting to be solved, chews on it for some period of time, and ultimately outputs something that we hope is a solution to the original problem.

Adopting this view of the City as a problem-solving machine allows us to ask some good questions:

  1. Is the machine running at a rate that is greater than the rate at which new problems arrive?
  2. How big is the current backlog of problems waiting to be solved?
  3. How good are the solutions that the machine generates for the problems it has solved?
  4. What steps are being taken to improve the performance of the machine?
  5. What’s the most important problem for the machine to work on?

It’s not my objective in this post to answer these questions.  However, I do want to offer the following.

First, there is a kind of “factory physics” that can be applied here.  That is, we already know some things that can be done to improve the performance of the problem-solving machine that is the City of Woodinville.  For example, we can recognize that the machine has only so much problem-solving capacity at any point in time.  By recognizing that we are talking about a finite-capacity system, we can start to think about how to make the best use of that capacity.

For example, consider the City Council as a group that has a large say in what problems the machine works on.  The Council can either direct the machine to work on very important problems, thereby making effective use of the capacity we have today, or they can choose to direct the machine to work on relatively less important problems, thereby wasting much of the available capacity.

I may be wrong but I think I sometimes see the City Council getting bogged down in issues that seem to be a poor use of their time.  For example, arguing over some minute aspect of some rule or regulation, when they could instead be using their available time working on more important questions.

What is a more important question — or problem — that the Council could choose to address?  Well, how about “How can we improve our performance as a ‘problem-solving machine’, as Sambrook calls it?”

It’s kind of like the case where someone gives you a magic lamp.  The genie from the lamp appears in a puff of smoke and tells you that you have three wishes.  What’s the first thing you should wish for?  My suggestion is to ask for an infinite number of additional wishes.

There is a little bit (understatement of the year) of stumbling block here:  Before anyone will ask — really ask — how the machine can be improved, they first have to believe that it’s actually possible to improve it.  I wonder how many Council Members — if any — really believe they can become better problem solvers.

This is also one of the reasons that I find chronic conflict to be such a damaging behavior.  If mutual trust and respect is required in order to be able to improve the machine, and if chronic conflict destroys mutual trust and respect, then how can an organization captured in a state of chronic conflict ever improve?

Is improvement necessary?  Absolutely.  And Dr. Deming (the man who “taught quality to the Japanese”) would certainly have agreed.  Dr. Deming invested much of his life working to improve organizations.  One of my favorite quotes of his is this:

“Change is not necessary.  Survival is not mandatory.”

I think this is a quote worth keeping in mind.  It’s time to stop believing that “Well, somehow, it will all work out.”  Rather, I think it’s time that we realize that 1) we are all in this together, and that 2) it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start fixing government from the bottom up.

Who’s with me?

Dr. Alistair Cockburn

Dr. Alistair Cockburn

Just a short note — and one that is not totally about the City of Woodinville.  I know that I have been on a tear on that score lately.  But I can’t help it — improving local government is important to me.

This note however is about some very good news.  In the latest edition of “Crosstalk” (Crosstalk is the “Journal of Defense Software Engineering”) Dr. Alistair Cockburn has written an article (“Spending Efficiency to Go Faster“) on how Theory of Constraints principles can be exploited to improve software engineering.

Many of my friends and clients are involved in the software engineering of complex systems.  They are recognizing, more and more, that the Theory of Constraints is a powerful tool for systems improvement.

Our ability to improve is unlimited.

A dilemma diagram (without injections) related to the sports field project in Woodinville

A dilemma diagram (without injections) related to the sports field project in Woodinville

Let’s say that you are a member of the City of Woodinville’s leadership team.  You’re either on the City Council or you hold a position of significant responsibility and authority within the City.

You also want to improve the City’s performance.  You want to see the City succeed.  You also want to make your own life more pleasant and satisfying.  Maybe you even want to improve the work environment for the many wonderful people employed by the City.  In short, you’re looking for a win-win-win:  A win for the citizens, a win for the staff and a win for yourself.

Is there an “open channel” to doing this?  Is it possible?

I believe it is possible and that the key to doing it is beginning to adopt more advanced problem-solving tools than are currently used.  This adoption — if it happens at all — would require a willingness on the part of the City Council to no longer accept the status quo as good enough.  Will that ever happen?  Beats me.

But do you know — really know — how much opportunity exists to improve the performance of the City?

In saying this I am not intending to criticize what is done today.  We have excellent people, at all levels, and they are doing all that they know how to do to generate good results.  I have no doubt of this.

That being said, it’s sometimes the case that new knowledge and new ways of doing things allows the performance of a system (the City of Woodinville is a system) to be dramatically increased in a very short amount of time.

Now, to get to the point of this post.  I’m starting to identify some of the dilemmas that I have claimed exist surrounding the sports field project that the City has had in-work (along with improvements to the Carol Edwards Center) since 1999 or so.  I am posting these dilemma diagrams on flickr.  Note that you want to look at the photos (diagrams) in their “large” size or download them in their large size to your computer.

I haven’t described dilemma diagrams in detail.  However, if you’re interested, you can find more information on them here and here.  And of course, if you want the in-depth how-to-do-it book, you can find that too on Amazon.

I will be making movies (probably somewhat like this one) explaining these dilemma diagrams and some of the other artifacts I create as I work on this issue.

In the meantime, people who want to do so can follow my work on flickr.

The big news in Woodinville for the past week or so has been snow.cimg0522

Woodinville is not a city that gets a lot of snow.  We have a few snowstorms a year.  But even small amounts of snow create a lot of chaos and confusion.  There are many steep hills in Woodinville (the Cascade mountain range is not too far away) and many of our citizens do not have a lot of experience driving on snow.

I think it’s correct to say that the City has been struggling to deal with the relatively heavy snow we have experienced.  They have done (in my view) an excellent job of keeping the main roads open.  I have no doubt that everyone employed by the City has been working long, difficult hours to achieve this.

I suspect that people will complain about the side-streets.  Many side-streets, including the ones leading into my development (Woodinville Heights) have been very difficult to navigate.  People with two-wheel drive cars have been more-or-less stuck in their homes.  When they did venture out they found the roads very difficult and often became stuck.  People with four-wheel drive vehicles had it better during the early part of the storm, but when the snow became deep and slushy, even they could become stuck.

A serious concern — in my  view — is emergency vehicle access to people’s homes.  I used to work as a part-paid firefighter with the old King County Fire District #36 and served as a driver-operator and a senior firefighter.  This meant that I drove almost all of the apparatus, except for the ladder truck.  (The ladder truck required “special training” and part-paid firefighters were not allowed to operate it.  If you have read the book “Great Boss, Dead Boss”, you’ll know what I mean when I say this was just an example of “tribal” behavior.)

I can tell you there were times during this emergency when I doubt whether an aid car / medic rig could have made it to my home.  I think the heavier engines / trucks (like the old LaFrance I drove, which weighed 36,600lbs) could have made it, assuming they were chained up.  But even then, parking around the bottom of my street was tight due to abandoned vehicles.

I suspect that some of my fellow citizens will be upset with the City over this snow event.  If I could speak to them I would ask them to “hold their fire.”  Here is why.

I am confident that if we were to look carefully into this event we would find people making decisions (some decisions having been made years ago) that, at the time, appeared to be the best possible decision.  That doesn’t mean it was the best possible decision, only that at the time, the people making the decisions were doing the best they could (given the information available to them and their experience and skills) to do what they believed was in the best interests of the citizens of Woodinville.

I recognize that what I have just written will sound weak to many of you.  Believe me, I know how good it can feel to take someone to task over some problem and really kick their ass for a while.

But you know something?  That good feeling only lasts about five or ten seconds (at least for me.)  After that rush, I come back to my senses and realize just how much damage I have just created for myself.  I realize how I have just perfectly sabotaged all of my previous work and acted in a way that was completely against what I really believe is the correct and most effective way to deal with serious problems.

We can and should learn a great deal from this snow emergency.  When the dust has settled and people have had time to recover, we should take a very careful look at what happened and why it happened.  What we will find is that there were some underlying dilemmas that set us up for this event.

This whole event could be explained to the citizens of Woodinville in a way that would show the following point very clearly:  The damage that citizens suffered in the emergency was not the result of bad or incompetent people, but rather, the result of good and capable people who were blindsided by a set of dilemmas that they did not recognize (they have not been trained to recognize dilemmas) and that even if they had recognized the dilemmas could not have resolved in a manner that did not demand that the City compromise on one or more of the conditions necessary for its success.

It’s time to stop responding to events like this as we have in the past.  I am no longer willing to accept the usual song and dance, where people talk about “lessons they have learned from this event.”  In my experience, whenever I dig into something like this, I find that they have not learned the most important lesson and as a result it’s just a matter of time until the next disaster strikes.  I call this “Wandering from Crisis to Crisis.”

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