Yeah, problem solving

Most people love to solve problems and feel the satisfaction of getting rid of some nasty tricky problem. It’s an outdated but still lasting belief that management is about problem solving. Problem solving turned in some cases into the managers’ and engineers’ holly mission and in some minds, the more problems the manager/engineer solves, the better manager/engineer he/she is. This kind of problem solving can be addictive, hence the Arsonist Fireman Syndrome.

On the other hand, thanks to Lean Management, enlightened managers understand it is crucial to refrain from solving problems and develop their subordinates’ ability to solve problems themselves instead.

Note that all the above is about problem solving, not problem avoidance or problem prevention. And if today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions, as stated in Peter Senge’s “The 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline”, in a world requiring increasingly fast decisions (read solutions), we’ll never run out of new problems to solve.

So what’s wrong with problem solving?

There are at least 2 major issues with actual problem solving practices.

1. Quick fixes

Solutions to problems are most often quick fixes made of the first “best” idea that popped up. Problem solving is not very often a robust and standardized process, systematically rolled out. In fact formal problem solving processes seldom exist even if everybody is claiming solving problems.

If known, simple structured approaches like PDCA are disregarded and ignored, pretending the situation requires quick reaction and not “unnecessary paperwork!”

Often, the problem seem to be fixed, giving credit to the firefighters and reinforcing their belief in their “way” of handling.

It is not really surprising that the same problem keeps showing up as the fixes did not eradicate the problem’s root cause, and the problem itself was never really studied, hence understood.

2. No risk assessment / risk mitigation

If formal and structured processes to tackle problems are seldom, the solutions’ risk assessment is even more seldom. And if the rush to quick fixes leaves no time for properly analyzing the possible problem root causes, no need to mention non-existing attempts to figure out the possible risks these quick fixes bring with them.

Chances are that the ill-prepared and hastily put in place solutions generate unexpected Undesirable Effects. What may fix one problem may well cause one or several others to appear.

That’s how quick and dirty troubleshooting usually come at the expense of later longer efforts to cope with a situation that possibly grew worse, and how Peter Senge’s quote: “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions” makes the most sense.

What solutions?

  • Choose yourself a structured problem solving approach, there are several available. Try it and if proven suitable for your purpose make it your standard way of approaching a problem.
  • Make sure the implemented solutions will really kill the problem by measuring on a long time horizon if the trouble has disappeared for good. The Quality Operating System is perfect for that.
  • Explore the Logical Thinking Process, the sole complex problem solving methodology I know which includes a systematic “Negative Branch” check to avoid or mitigate Undesirable Effects as by-products of the implemented solution.

1View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

Why would I learn to think (logically)?

Most people are convinced of their ability to think logically and don’t see the point of getting a specific training like the Logical Thinking Process  training course.

Indeed, in some extend most of the people have an innate basic logical thinking way, otherwise our world would be pretty weird.

Yet it is also true that many people are unable to structure properly their thoughts and express their ideas with clarity and in a straightforward brilliant logical way. Even so it makes sense in their mind, what they try to share doesn’t always make sense to others.

How many times did you listen to someone and ask (yourself) “so what?” once the speech is over.

The importance of clarity

The first important thing to achieve is to express ideas with clarity. Clarity means that the idea, purpose, objective or goal is expressed in an unambiguous way, letting no room for misunderstanding or interpretation.

Clarity is always important. As an employee to be correctly understood by managers and colleagues and as a leader to be correctly understood by the team members or subordinates.

Imagine the consequences of an ill-stated objective. Stakeholders may misunderstand it and do something unexpected but aligned onto the objective they understood. Such kind of situation can be costly in terms of motivation – the stakeholders are feeling bad about their misunderstanding, resenting their leader for his/her poor objective statement and disappointed for all the energy they put into some action, for nothing – and in terms of resources and time wasted.

Ambiguous or ill-stated objectives are also welcome for some people to smartly escape some chores or refrain to commit to something they don’t agree, don’t want or don’t like. Room for interpretation is also room for later arguing. Something not desirable when some objectives are non negotiable.

Conversely, the inability to clearly explain what has been achieved, why and how it contributes to achieving some objective may make a team member look as a poor performer even so his/her contribution was significant.

It is frustrating to be a brilliant contributor to some project but unable to explain why and how. It is also frustrating to be unable to “sell” a brilliant idea to colleagues, the boss or customers.

Sound logic

The robustness of a cause-and-effect analysis or demonstration is also important in order to convince readers or listeners about the soundness of the ideas expressed.

According to the principles of adult learning, sense and purpose must be fully understood for adults to commit to something. If the rationale of some project or actions asked is not demonstrated in a clear and sound (robust) way, it will invite opponents to fight against it, making use of all “holes”.

Some undertaking presented in a fluffy way with many unanswered questions remaining open is scary. Opponents will have it easy to reinforce the doubts and fears of the audience by pointing out the inconsistencies and “holes” in the reasoning.

Lack of confidence is very likely to turn away customers, stakeholders or decision makers from the best of proposal. Instinctive risk aversion is probably more common than innate logical thinking.

Using “long arrows”

Many people with good logical thinking abilities will mentally cut corners and use “long arrows” in their demonstration. A long arrow is a metaphor for skipping several cause-and-effect steps linking an effect to a cause or the other way round.

While the link exists, it does not appear clearly. The audience cannot understand the rational link between an effect and a cause and may lose trust or interest about the presentation, get stuck because of this logical “hole”, doubt about the reality and validity of the ideas expressed, and so on.

Long arrow example

I have to make a presentation in building n°10, 15 minutes walking from here. It rains. I need an umbrella. I must borrow one.

“Could I borrow your umbrella because I must present my report?” I ask a colleague.

My colleague may ask herself what the link is between presenting a report and her umbrella. She will probably lend me the umbrella anyway, still not understanding what for. I did not feel necessary to explain the whole sequence of cause-and-effect, perfectly clear and logical in my head but strange when expressed that way.

Now imagine asking for commitment to something very important and serious that does not make sense because of long arrows.

Mastering logical thinking is also about avoiding long arrows and being able to detect them. I guess someone trapped with long arrows would be grateful for the help by someone seeing the shortcut and helping to reformulate the idea in a more robust and clearer way.

Mitigate the risk of “negative branches”

Negative branch is another metaphor used in the Logical Thinking Process, were logical relationships are depicting in logical trees. A negative branch is an undesirable effect or chain of cause-and-effect that “grows” from an action or decision taken.

Negative branches are often growing unexpectedly because the action was decided or decision taken without checking the possibility for things to go in an unexpected and undesirable direction.

Some fixes for a problem can result in other problems to arise, sometimes worse than the initial problem that was to be fixed.

Awareness and practice of the Logical Thinking Process hones the ability to “foresee” or at least to prevent negative branches and craft better solutions.


Basic logical thinking is a given and it may appear strange to promote “learning to think logically”. But it is as with many other things supposed to be “common” but aren’t. Common sense for instance is not so common.

Therefore there is a lot of room to improve one’s logical thinking skills.

Once introduced to the Logical Thinking Process, there are daily opportunities to hone one’s scrutinizing abilities. Newspaper, tv news, blog posts, speeches… are not always constructed with sound logic. Fallacious reasoning is easier to debunk, as well as surfacing false assumptions or “insufficient causes” on which some thinking are built upon. Negative outcome can be sensed and hopefully prevented.

Mastering Logical Thinking helps for better analyzing situations, understanding real causes of problem, crafting better solutions and expressing oneself much better.

1View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

What is Negative Branch Reservation?

Did you experience this utmost frustration when having implemented a solution or countermeasure to a problem, a new issue arises brought up by this fix?

This is what Negative Branch Reservation (NBR) intents to prevent.

Negative Branch Reservation is  a robustness test usually associated with a Future Reality Tree (FRT). It checks what could go wrong in the intended change process in order to anticipate possible negative outcomes.

In a Future Reality Tree, identified Undesirable Effects (UDE) are combined with “injections”, which are solutions or countermeasures to neutralize the UDE, a cure to the pain if you will, hence the name “injection”.

Yet some injections may have negative side effects, opening a chain of causes-and-effects developing what is called a Negative Branch, leading to new UDEs.

How does this happen?

Injections combine themselves with existing reality to produce some effect, this effect is either undesirable by itself or the cause of a new UDE further up the tree as the new effect can combine with existing reality and so on.

Being aware of this risk, Logical Thinking practitioners mitigate it with a scrutinizing technique called Negative Branch Reservation.

How to spot possible Negative Branches?

The search for possible Negative Branches is part of the Future Reality Tree scrutinizing, once the FRT is built. External* scrutinizers are invited to consider each effect entity of the tree and check if another effect can arise then the expected one. This includes the Desired Effects (DE) at the top of the tree.

*not being involved in the construction of the FRT

If somewhere a Negative Branch is likely to grow, the next step is to check if the injection causing it can be replaced by another one, without the negative side effect.

Chances are that the initial injection must be kept as no better alternative is found. In this case, the Negative Branch has to be trimmed.

How to trim Negative Branches?

In order to neutralize the UDE brought up by the Negative Branch, go back to the Branch’s origin and surface the underlying assumptions, using the if…then…because following the arrow from the injection that caused the Negative Branch to grow.

Look for a possible injection to neutralize or minimize the UDE. If none can be found at that spot, move upwards the Negative Branch and repeat the process. At some point an injection will “cure” the UDE.

As the cure for the Negative Branch’s UDE is an injection, this too must be checked for possible new side effects with negative outcome.

The robustness of the Future Reality Tree, and every tree in the Logical Thinking Process, is guaranteed by thorough scrutinizing.

cropped-bandeau_ch402.jpgView Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn