A Tour of Methods, Part 2

Wed, 01/02/2013 - 11:41am
ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions LLC

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions LLC

Alan Nicol, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutionsThis is part two of a two-part piece. Part one can be found here.

Let me share one more engineering example, because I think it makes a great reference point either for selecting a method or developing our own. Then I’ll test my assertion that, in different contexts, the approach is still similar by describing some methods that are not engineering related.

The Value Methodology Job Plan[2] used within the context of the discipline of value engineering reads as follows:

  1. Information phase.
  2. Function analysis phase.
  3. Creative phase.
  4. Evaluation phase.
  5. Development/presentation phase.

To be more concise, I left the pre-study and post-study elements off of the job plan. I like to include this example because it describes the very important element of problem-solving: creativity. This method emphasizes the discipline of breaking down a problem into functions and then exercising creativity to develop multiple solutions, which are then evaluated for either further improvement or selection for final development.

The Value Methodology also emphasizes two important decision points. The first is deciding what solution to use, and the second is deciding to finalize the execution and make the solution permanent in the presentation phase. For those of us desiring to inspire more creativity or innovation, and better decision-making, this model is worthy of our examination.

Now, for something completely different, let’s look at a tactical process used by military and law enforcement units. Referred to as the OODA Loop, it addresses problems in the following way:

  1. Observe.
  2. Orient.
  3. Decide.
  4. Act.

It’s extremely simple since we are meant to use it as a decision process under condition of extreme urgency and stress. We are directed to observe the situation, including assessing risks and taking note of available resources. Next, we orient ourselves to our surroundings, including re-evaluating our mission criteria. We decide, based on what we observe and what we know to be the mission priorities, what is best to do under the circumstances, and then we do it; we act.

This one is nice in the sense that it forces one to recognize that he or she is empowered to make a decision, is indeed expected to do so, is given a simple guide to first assess the situation and then to follow through. I have worked in some corporate environments in which a method such as this would have been very impactful. Those environments needed an infusion of responsibility and decision-making initiative.

Finally I’ll share one that is even simpler and implies a very different cultural attitude, though it still models a standard human problem-solving approach. I can’t verify an original source, but I was given it from a martial art instructor. It very well may be his own creation. It reads as follows:

  1. Accept.
  2. Adapt.
  3. Act.

You will note its similarity to the OODA Loop in terms of its simplicity and utility in emergencies. I say that this one is different culturally, because the first word and action is to accept the situation. In western culture, in particular, we tend to reject the status quo, which instigates our actions to change it.

Arguing over the truth or implications of the situation, or simply denying that things could be such a way generates a great deal of stress and wastes energy. If we need to develop an environment or culture that deals with situations calmly and with concerted focus, this method can be very influential.

By accepting that things are the way they are, we are instantly ready to deal with them. We adapt to the current situation. This might mean that we make changes or adjustments, or it might mean that we adjust our expectations to accommodate a new reality. It should not be taken to mean that we consign ourselves to a fate beyond our control without putting up a fight (remember that this comes from a martial art).

Finally, after we have adjusted to the new circumstance, we act accordingly with a mindset for victory or success. Put this one in the context of a production process that now needs to produce 30 percent more than it currently can, or adapting to a slow economy or a sudden increase in taxes. In any of these cases, there is a problem to address. Worrying about it isn’t going to change it, so simply proceed to adapting to the situation and moving forward.

The above examination reviews several and diverse problem-solving approaches. As I said, they are all valid and they are all versatile. We can adopt any one of them, or we can create our own.

If adapting one is more of your mode of action or thought, consider mixing and matching elements of one or more, or adjusting the language to meet your specific needs. For example, consider a rapid-response, custom-machined component business.

Quick problem-solving is important, but if it doesn’t meet a customer’s expectations, it won’t matter. Perhaps a blend of the existing models with some characteristic language will make a good approach for this hypothetical organization:

  1. Information.
  2. Understand.
  3. Design.
  4. Verify.
  5. Build.

Imagine that the process manifests with the business folks first gathering information about the contract and the needs from a customer. Then they consult with the customer to understand the needs and expectations of the parts to be machined. The business designs tooling, fixtures and processes to create the machined parts, and verifies a prototype with the customer before fulfilling the order. It’s simple and well-adapted to that particular organization’s needs.

We can, of course, develop our own method model from scratch. To do that, take a quick look at what all of the above methods have in common. It gives us insight into the natural human way of addressing problems successfully.

In different terms or words, every model above begins with gathering information. We cannot successfully address a problem if we don’t know what the problem is, or what resources we have at our disposal to use. Some models describe several activities to encompass gathering information (define-measure-analyze … ), while others use only one word with an all-encompassing meaning (plan).

Each of the models includes at least one step to describe applying our creative minds to arriving at one or more possible solutions. Some emphasize the creativity and selection process, while others emphasize acting quickly with a solution of some kind. The differences are the result of diverse cultural needs.

In each case, there is a decision to be made. In some cases, the decision is explicitly called out, while in others, it is implied in the language of “verify” or “evaluate.” Again, the different emphases result from cultural values or needs, but the fact that a decision is made persists. We decide that we have a solution we can use, or we go back to the solving step.

Finally, we follow through with our decision. Where metrics are a large cultural element, we find language such as “control.” Where urgency is vital, we see words as direct as “act.”

So, if we are going to draft our own way of doing things, from scratch, to meet our specific cultural desires, we should at least expect to address four steps somehow:

  1. Information.
  2. Solving.
  3. Decision.
  4. Execution.

To devise our own method is not hard considering the simplicity of those four natural steps. The power of our method model comes from the language and words we choose, so we must be very careful in doing so.

For environments demanding quick action and urgency, use direct language and action words, and keep the process as short as possible. Contrarily, for environments where discipline and risk management are more important, we should choose words that imply broad ideas, or encompass a range of related actions or activity. Doing so implies careful thought and consideration, and greater planning.

To fuel the process of selecting your language, begin with the values you most want to promote or reinforce. Make a list of those values. In the method model, use words that explicitly or implicitly direct those ideals. Here is an example: Let’s say that we want to devise a business improvement method model based on the following values:

  1. Adaptability.
  2. Responsibility for performance.
  3. Thinking “outside of the box” or doing things in a new way.
  4. Quick change, not long deliberation.
  5. Deliberate change, not willy-nilly adjustments.

Let’s say further that metrics are not as important to us as morale, and a general perception that things are better. How might we build a model from this? There must be hundreds of ways, but I propose the following.

Because we want quick action over deliberation, we’ll keep our list short. We will be careful in deciding if we will try to develop a change because we don’t want to waste time changing without purpose, so our first step will be a decision. We will also engender responsibility through a late-step decision. Finally, we will emphasize creativity.

How might the following work, just as a proposal?

  1. Define problem.
  2. Imagine.
  3. Select.
  4. Deploy.

The list is short. We can build in the correct behaviors within our education and expectations for each step. For example, the word “select” implies a decision and some responsibility on the part of the team or the leader making the change. If the common practice becomes to demonstrate successful improvement or performance as part of the selection element, the test or verify idea is implied within that step, but it doesn’t necessarily become a dictated necessity for simple problems where the solution is fairly obvious, thus we avoid the impulse to waste time verifying something that doesn’t require it.

The language we choose is very influential. Troubleshoot your drafts before deploying them. Will the language imply actions you don’t want? Do they adequately convey the values and behaviors you are trying to engender?

A culture of continuous improvement is the most powerful way to ensure persistent business and process efficiency and effectiveness over the long term. The key to instituting a culture of our own choosing is to dictate the common practices and behaviors that make up that culture. By choosing an improvement model that engenders the ideals we want our culture to have, we begin the cultivation of the environment and behaviors we desire.

Examine the tour of improvement models above. Pick one that meets your needs, or modify one to meet your needs. If your needs are more unique, draft your own from scratch. Be sure that it includes the four key elements of human problem-solving thought, and choose language that drives the ideals you desire and value. It’s really not so difficult.

Stay wise, friends.

This is part two of a two-part piece. Part one can be found here.What’s your take? Please feel free to comment below! For more information, please visit

1. Cooper, Robert G. Winning at New Products, New York: Basic Books, 2001
2. SAVE International Value Methodology Standard, May 1997


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