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The Chief Cause of Problems is Solutions

by Brent Wahba
May 14, 2015

The Chief Cause of Problems is Solutions

by Brent Wahba
May 14, 2015 | Comments (3)

While I’m pretty sure CBS News journalist Eric Sevareid wasn’t referring to organizational transformation when he made that comment back in 1970, it applies as much to us here today as ever.

You may be familiar with the related “Law of Unintended Consequences,” which describes unintentional outcomes in unpredictably changing “complex” systems. For example, alcohol prohibition in the 1920s launched the Mafia, and the CIA’s support of Osama Bin Laden in the 1980s Afghanistan war with the Soviet Union later resulted in dire global consequences. In our complex organizations nowadays, we similarly oversimplify problems, try to fix them as painlessly as possible, cross our fingers, and move on to the next fire. Unfortunately, things rarely turn out quite as perfectly as we had hoped.

The work, process, and cultural problems we bemoan are often the result of somebody’s well-meaning improvement attempts in the past. While obviously not the case today, bureaucracies were once (also in the 1920s) considered cutting-edge management science because at the time they represented the “most efficient and rational way to organize human activity.” I wonder if that conclusion came before Prohibition, but I digress.

Sometimes focusing resources on a few high priorities (good, right?) allows something else, now unattended, to rear its ugly head (“Whack-A-Mole”), or else we are so blinded by a successful “best practice” (in some other organization) that we fail analyze whether that solution could possibly work in our situation. And often times, an even cleverly designed improvement is just thrown on top of the same old broken system like a blanket (“blanket solution”) and the additional complexity smothers productivity even more.

Here are just a few examples I have witnessed during coaching visits (note - these occur at all organizational levels):

Original Problem


Unintended New Problems

“Nobody owns the value stream!”

Appoint Value Stream Managers

  • Resources diverted from other valuable work
  • Confusion & contention grows because rest of organization is still organized by departments
  • P&L ownership is distributed

“Sales are too low!”

Streamline selling process to close more deals

  • Overburden in Operations or Engineering prevent more sales
  • Quality/responsiveness suffers & customers become less satisfied

“Our products are too Engineering - driven & expensive!”

Appoint Toyota-style “Chief Engineer” to also manage total cost, marketing, & manufacturing system design

  • Few organizations have this much cross-discipline experience so they try but fail to manage projects this “better” way. Frustration ensues

“We aren’t learning fast enough!”

“Fail fast, fail cheap”

  • New culture forms around just trying anything instead of thoughtful experiments & knowledge reuse

“We need better problem solving skills!”

Everything is a golden problem

  • Organizational depression from perceived negativity

“This process is too complex for people to manage!”

IT solution

  • Steep learning curve
  • Vendor’s “solution” defines a new (& not necessarily better) process
  • Unpredicted costs ruin business case

“We aren’t organizationally aligned!”

Implement Hoshin Kanri/Strategy Deployment

  • Unless the strategy was value producing to begin with, the organization just becomes more efficient at generating waste

“We need to get lean fast!”

Copy another company’s methods or hire an ex-good company consultant

  • Tools don’t lead to thinking
  • Culture mismatch & resistance
  • Pride of solution creation is lost

How do you avoid situations like this? Due to the nature of our complex systems, it is impossible to guarantee that we won’t ever cause new problems. But if we combine our Lean and systems knowledge with some problem-solving discipline, we can prevent many by deliberately thinking ahead about what could possibly go wrong and creating more robust countermeasures.

For example:

Clearly Define the Problem That Needs Solving: Spending time upfront in problem solving usually pays big dividends later. We can start by answering (in an A3 maybe?) “What problem(s) are we solving?”, “Why is this a high priority problem?”, and “What is the specific, measureable gap we are trying to close?” Solving wrong or unimportant problems is a sure-fire way to create future waste. That good upfront discussion also prevents us from “solutions thinking” (incorrectly defining a problem in terms of needing a specific solution) and “solutions jumping” (quickly choosing a convenient solution without first asking “What could possibly go wrong?”). 

Understand the Whole System: Deeply understand the entire system where the problem(s) reside. Have we looked at a high enough level to make sure we aren’t just addressing symptoms? If we eliminate a bottleneck, can the rest of the system keep up? And do we understand the upstream / downstream elements of our system well enough to make sure the problem isn’t just being moved somewhere else or a new problem is being created? (I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen teams try to move the same work to outside their value stream and call it an improvement).

Keep It Lean: Keep reminding everyone of the purpose/customer value of the change, implement quality at the source as part of the change, and of course leverage PDCA before, during, and after to address new problems in real time. Changing too many things at once reduces our understanding of the impact of each element of a solution, so creating small batches of change helps reduce complexity while allowing the system to settle back to a steady state more quickly. For instance, don’t simultaneously implement an entirely new product development process alongside a new project management IT solution and hope to see huge improvements during the first few projects. That kind of change takes time and the identification / resolution of many, many smaller problems along the way.

Test, Improve, Test, Improve: A well-designed experiment or pilot can help uncover the good and the bad of a potential solution before committing the entire organization to a specific path. This gives us the opportunity to make the solution even better and address those unexpected shortcomings before standardizing. Not ready to even physically try out a solution? Run thought experiments using tools like Failure Modes & Effects Analysis and Scenario Planning to identify potential risks and new countermeasures.  

Don’t Forget Human Nature: Finally, remember that human brains and the behaviors / cultures / solutions they create can only change incrementally. Changing minds is a physical rewiring process that requires experience and emotion. If you expect people to change quickly and dramatically, you’re setting yourself and your team up for another round of unintended consequences.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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3 Comments | Post a Comment
mike sparks May 14, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

I pound my head on the wall daily wishing that thinking this way would catch on in my office.....coming from mfg into the tech world- you would think a bunch of smart, techy people would automatically think this way. Nope. Quite the contrary- things get WAY over thought, and when problems are "solved" they create more problems. Frustrating

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Brent Wahba May 14, 2015

I am sorry to hear that, Mike - apparently I forgot "permanently damaged drywall" as one of my unintended new problems ;>)

But seriously, is there anything you can do to help coach your brilliant but inefficient co-workers to prevent problems?  I have found that smart, techy people will usually rise to the challenge of solving a difficult problem - even if it relates to culture change or improvement methodology.  They just need to be engaged (or sometimes just asked) to help because chances are, they are frustrated too.

Thanks for the comment,


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Ken Hunt May 15, 2015


I have found the same to be true of engineers. They create cool stuff that sometimes have a lot of complications, so they tend to overthink and tinker with what should be fairly simple solutions.

I steal advice I heard from a couple of my Senseis, and tell them to "Think like a 12 year old". Once they get in that mindset, things go a lot smoother (not that it's easy at first).

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