The power of solving small problems

There are at all times a lot of problems to be solved. Simply open your e-mail inbox and absolutely there will likely be one thing in there that isn’t fairly proper and requires intervention. You actually don’t have time or capability to resolve all of them, and so you have to prioritize. The two commonest determination standards used for prioritizing this listing of problems are the noise about it (as in “the squeaky wheel will get the grease”) and the magnitude of the issue.

The squeaky-wheel criterion is actually flawed, however usually is predicated on some basic advantage. To some extent, you can argue that that is crowd-sourcing the prioritization. Whereas this methodology will definitely generally get it improper, it received’t at all times get it improper.

Prioritizing drawback solving based mostly on magnitude, nevertheless, is inherently flawed as a main criterion. Simply as importantly, the blindness with which this filter controls us is harmful, as a result of we function as if nobody might or ought to push again on the choice. This doesn’t imply that we flip the mannequin and swing the opposite means, however placing this criterion so excessive in our psychological algorithm has a large and customarily unseen unfavorable influence. It makes us devalue the act of solving small problems.

The knowledge of solving small problems

The knowledge of solving small problems is in no way new, however perpetually forgotten. The parable of the nail conveys the influence of seemingly small problems. Whereas its origins are unknown, variations of the next return so far as the thirteenth century:

For need of a nail the shoe was misplaced.
For need of a shoe the horse was misplaced.
For need of a horse the rider was misplaced.
For need of a rider the message was misplaced.
For need of a message the battle was misplaced.
For need of a battle the dominion was misplaced.
And all for the need of a horseshoe nail.


This captures the basic fact that the majority massive problems started as small problems that left unattended grew or propagated. Whereas we are able to’t remedy each small drawback that comes alongside, we must always at the least worth them. They’re vital, not as a result of of what they’re right now however as a result of of what they might grow to be.

The different vital actuality is that it is extremely troublesome, if not unattainable, to really decide which small problems might probably grow to be huge problems. If nothing else, the work to judge the potential threat of every unchecked small drawback is undoubtedly much less effort than to really resolve the difficulty itself. Due to this fact, we should at the least respect all of the small problems, as some of them will in the future develop as much as be one we’ll actually care about.

Examples of this precept

Albeit excessive, an excellent instance of that is the Mariner 1 program. NASA has a lot of related tales, so that you may surprise if that is only a NASA drawback, however the reason being that they make nice efforts to check and publicize their very own failures, and due to this fact grow to be a real laboratory for the research of failures.

Mariner 1 was constructed to fly previous and research the planet, Venus. It was launched in 1962, and shortly veered off track. Unable to get well and to stop potential hurt to folks, the rocket was triggered to self-destruct, inflicting a complete loss of $18.5 million. The failure occurred as a result of of a lacking bar over an R image. R was for radius, and the bar that ought to have been over the R would point out to take the common, or reasonably to easy out the information, not reacting (or overreacting) to every information level. The one omission was carried ahead from the written directions, into the coded software program, and ultimately into the rocket, leading to large failure. This instance demonstrates that small errors in work product can have an outsized influence.

In one other theme, does each e-mail in your inbox obtain the identical quantity of consideration? Is something ever missed? I reside not removed from Washington Crossing, the place throughout Christmas 1776 George Washington crossed the Delaware River together with his troops to assault a gaggle of employed German troopers. It was an vital ethical victory, and the portray representing the second is one of the extra iconic photos of American historical past. As a result of they have been unnumbered, the American assault needed to stay a shock to realize the benefit. Sadly, a loyalist farmer alongside the route noticed Washington’s troops and despatched phrase to the German troops. The message was associated to the commanding officer, Colonel Johann Rall, who both by no means learn it or by no means requested anybody to translate it. The unread be aware was discovered on the Colonel’s lifeless physique, and Washington’s victory on the Battle of Trenton was a big milestone within the warfare. In fact, for the People, this was a contented mistake.


Not all small problems with outsized influence consequence within the loss of hundreds of thousands or turning round a warfare, however the premise is that throughout your group there are seemingly small problems which can be all equally mundane, till their influence propagates into one thing greater. It might influence your prospects, your staff, or simply your price range, however these problems are throughout you.

What are you able to do about it?

So, let’s begin off with the excellent news. Though it appears apparent, solving problems whereas they’re nonetheless small is quicker and simpler. One motive is that you just don’t need to appropriate all of the unfavorable outcomes from the issue rising massive. The different motive is that tracing an issue again to the unique trigger when time has elapsed is way more troublesome. In case you are in a automobile accident and break your leg, you already know why it’s damaged. In case you are sick in your 50s as a result of of one thing you have been uncovered to in your 20s, it is extremely troublesome to determine why, or to show it.

Due to this fact, for starters, we need to design our work processes and our administration programs to show problems as early as attainable. Perhaps you received’t go after solving all of them, however at the least you’ve gotten the choice. Make problems seen as they happen, and they are going to be a lot simpler to search out the trigger and to resolve.

Even when problems are only one/tenth of the hassle to resolve whereas small, you probably have 100 instances as many, you’re nonetheless behind. The different key answer is that this: have interaction extra of your group in drawback solving. There’s nothing easier for solving extra problems than having extra drawback solvers able to do the work. Many organizations suppose this implies placing extra folks on drawback solving groups, due to this fact partaking them. This usually truly defeats the aim. Whereas the collective intelligence of the workforce may make the issue solving in the end more practical, it additionally usually slows down the method, and does nothing to extend the amount of drawback solving. As a substitute, concentrate on consistency and depth of problem-solving abilities throughout the group and put them to work solving the problems they’re closest to. 

Downside solving is a really human factor to be doing. Folks really feel a way of accomplishment and contribution. Why not lean into that power? Construct mechanisms reminiscent of coaching and training, requirements, and strategies for escalation when obstacles are struck, to assist incite the power of folks solving problems, each individual, each day, and if attainable, each drawback. 

Jamie Flinchbaugh is the founder of management consultancy, JFlinch, and writer of People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem. He’s additionally cofounder of the Lean Learning Center. 


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