Matt's Articles

Simply Cause and Effect

To solve a problem you must establish cause and effect. The lights are off. Flip the light switch. The lights are on. Voila! Cause and effect has been established. When the light switch is up, the lights are on. When the light switch is down, the lights are off. It is a simple, linear relationship. I learned to think this way as an engineer and I teach this to Green Belts. This is how I was taught Six Sigma at Motorola. Establish cause and effect, then establish the linear relationship and the problem is solved… If only life was so simple. Try flipping that switch about a million times. Experience tells me that simple relationship will fail more than a few times. The bulb will fail. Why? The switch will fail. Why? The power will fail. Why? I don’t know, I just know that it will happen. 

The world is really complex and not all that linear. Instead of a light switch, think about a human assembling a steering column for an automobile, or a nurse delivering medicine, or a child taking a test. How many variables are at play in these situations? The quality of the supplies, the diligence of the individual, natural aptitudes, mood due to an argument a person had before leaving home, what they ate for breakfast. Do these things matter? Probably yes. Can they all be quantified? Can they all be reliably measured and explained by a simple mathematical (linear or otherwise) relationship? Probably no.

Here is another fun example. This one is a classic. I use this tool regularly, teaching it to aspiring Green Belts as described in the example. This is 5 Why’s analysis. In 5 Why’s we think about some problems and we walk a linear path for deeper and deeper causes for the problem. The classic example goes this way:

Problem: The Jefferson Memorial is deteriorating.

1) Why? too much washing

2) Why? a lot of bird droppings

3) Why? a lot of spiders

4) Why? a lot of gnats

5) Why? gnats are attracted to the lights shining on the building at night. 

Solution: Turn off the lights.

Ahh, an instructor’s dream! The perfect example of a powerful method demonstrated in a real life scenario. Well, thank you to the internet’s many truth detectives; a simple search led me to some discrepancies in this all too perfect “real world” story. Reality is not linear nor simplified into a few critical variables. Flipping the light switch off wasn’t so easy and it created its own unpredicted challenges. I encourage you to read the actual story here.

The world is not linear and we have been fooling ourselves; it’s time to give up solving problems with cause and effect and go back to mysticism. I hope my readers enjoy sarcasm, as I’m not at all giving up on this tried, and mostly true method. I believe thinking through problems in this linear cause and effect approach is powerful and important. But if all we do and all we teach is a basic linear approach then our learners are set up to be confused and disappointed when they try to solve real problems. We need to spend time discussing the non-linear realities of process improvement. The divergent and creative thought that so often brings us unimaginable innovations. In the last few years I have really worked at trying to understand creativity and the creative process. (Thank goodness it is a process, so I have a chance!) 

This means recognizing that there are flaws in our analysis. There are measurement errors, missed variables, unknowable realities. The only real way to know something is to do it. Give it a try. And trying it once may not be enough. It means recognizing that the right solution may not be right right now. It means seeing that what we “know” about a process, person, or situation may actually be holding us back from learning something new. In practice I encourage people to “time-box” their analysis. Learn enough so that you can make a thoughtful trial of your solution. I challenge my assumptions. I invite people that do not know much about the process into the problem solving discussion. These are the ways that I invite the divergent into my studies and learn something new.

When I teach Design of Experiments I have the students build paper helicopters. The reason I prefer the paper helicopter is that the design factors are endless. And there are so many environmental effects which cannot be controlled. I give a few rules and a bit of direction, then demand results. They usually get irritated with me because I haven’t “given them” all of what they need to know. Yes, that is the point. My response to them is that I’d rather them experience that now in the classroom with me than back out in the business. I want the students to be comfortable with the ambiguity of a situation. Furthermore, in the face of that ambiguity I want them to figure out how to move forward and continue their problem solving. 

There is still much that we don’t understand and it will never boil down to a neat formula. The good news is that this reality is quickly becoming mainstream. Economists are recognizing the limits of economic models. Entrepreneurs and business people are seeing the opportunity that divergent thought and creativity presents. Even my business professor, (at the once upon a time stogie, University of Chicago) brought in a ballerina to expose us to the creative process. At the time it was odd and a bit silly to me. Looking back, I applaud the professor for trying to force us to light up a different set of neural pathways in our overly programmed brains. We have always known that “all models are wrong, though some are useful.” Now is a good time for us to act on this knowledge and look for opportunities to pull the non-linear, outlier ideas into our problem solving discussions so we can discover the next generation of solutions.