by Kirk White, Yusen Logistics (Americas) Inc.
Consider three iconic moments in PROBLEM SOLVING HISTORY:
There's a famous tale revolving around King Solomon. Two women fighting over a young boy. Each claimed the child as her own. Solomon suggested cutting the boy in half to judge the reactions of the women – the one who was willing to let the other keep the child in order to save his life was deemed the actual mother.
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, poor Sir Charles meets an untimely end under suspicious circumstances. Sherlock Holmes uses his deft deductive reasoning to observe and gather evidence, analyze ALL the facts, eliminate the impossible solution (evil magic dog), solve the case with the logical remaining conclusion (big regular dog with some funny paint on it), and bring a would-be usurper to justice.
The climax of Batman Forever (yes, THAT Batman Forever) presents Batman with an impossible choice. The Riddler has suspended Dr. Chase Meridian and Robin over certain doom and taunts the Caped Crusader. Who will he rescue, Batman's protégé or Bruce Wayne's girlfriend? Batman tricks The Riddler and saves them BOTH. As the Riddler lies broken and beaten, The Dark Knight leans in and says, "I had to save them both. You see, I'm both Bruce Wayne and Batman, not because I have to be, now, because I choose to be." Then there's some slow motion running and stuff – really, it's best not to think about it…
So, what does any of this have to do with logistics, retail or anything remotely related to this column?
In all our lives, a little rain must fall and in all our businesses a little chaos must reign. There are going to be moments in your operations where things go WRONG. Stupefyingly, terrifyingly, cost-risingly (?) wrong. There's a mis-shipment. There's a SERIES of mis-shipments. A massive storm knocks out your most critical origin hub. One of your distribution centers suffers a never-ending series of revolving employees, causing productivity to crumble.
These are problems that are not easily solvable. Some thought may be required. Some deep thought. And often we take for granted that we actually know HOW to think about things. We get a group of people in a room, order pizza and open the dry-erase markers – pretty soon everyone starts shouting and things are written down on the whiteboard, but there invariably comes a moment when the talking is done and the action needs to start and THERE is the proverbial rub. What happens next. HOW do we take this information and apply it? Is there something we missed? Is this the best way to attack this particular issue?
In times like this it is crucial that a METHOD exist in order to navigate the waters of indecision. Although there are as many thinking "styles" as there are people willing to write books about them, three effective methods (see where we're going?) that have stood the test of time are critical, lateral AND parallel thinking.
This is a complex method and we will be devoting several articles to its intricacies over the next year, but to put the concept into a nutshell, think of it as an all-encompassing method for the madness. Critical thinking is a grand term for something that, despite the complexity and nuance, is actually a relatively straightforward and logical process. In fact, LOGIC is its middle name. You are presented with a conundrum so you take in all the information you can – leave no stone unturned so to speak, analyze and evaluate your mountain of data using sound logic and avoiding fallacies (more on that in another article…stay tuned, dear readers), and come to the best conclusion you can. This is how Sherlock Holmes solved the mystery of that terrifying hound!
A term coined by Edward De Bono, lateral thinking can also often be described by that ol' chestnut, "thinking outside the box." Like good King Solomon's story illustrates, it's a creative approach to problem solving, eschewing the things we know (or THINK we know) and seeking truly unique alternatives. Let's travel back to the late 1990's when everyone was in the race to create a portable CD player that didn't skip. CD's had replaced cassettes as the music delivery system of choice but, confound it, you just couldn't find a personal portable device to play CD's that didn't have all sorts of issues when you put on your headphones and took it for a run or a hike or even some type of bumpy walk. The race was on to create that perfect portable CD player that could play, unskipped, despite the bumpy ride it was taken on and then one company asked the (LATERAL) question, "Is this the only way to take music with you on the go? Might there be a better way than the compact disc?" And the rest is Apple flavored history. The iPod that revolutionized the music industry was a lateral move from clunky CD's.
Think of this concept, also coined by De Bono, as lateral thinking's first cousin. In De Bono's seminal book, Six Thinking Hats, he asks us to imagine a group of people looking at a house, each on a different side (one at front door, one at the back, one to the left, and one to the right), and then being asked to describe that house. Each would give a compelling, confident, and ultimately accurate account of the house, despite being in direct conflict with the others describing the same house. But if you put the group together, one side at a time, not only do they all agree on the description of the house, but the description is actually more accurate because it covers all of the structure. Batman knew this well when he took on The Riddler's challenge. ALL ideas are valid and exist simultaneously. Everything is considered and every idea explored until an impasse is reached and then and ONLY then is a choice needed. The idea is to welcome as many points of view as possible. This is in opposition to critical thinking's more argumentative "let's dismiss as many 'incorrect' ideas as possible."
In the upcoming months, we will delve deeper into these and other methods of problem solving. At the end of this journey, you will have been introduced to a robust system of problem solving that can be tailored to your individual needs. As you will see, each of these can have benefits whether used separately or in conjunction.
Kirk White has worked in every division of Yusen Logistics. After a brief stint in Transportation, he transferred to Corporate, where he coordinated Yusen's Employee Empowered Kaizen system and served as a Specialist for the Business Process Re-engineering group, after which he moved to the Warehouse division to serve as the East Coast Quality Manger before ultimately joining the International division, where he hopes to use his Quality knowledge base to prove an asset to OCM.
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