Goalless Solutions Make Things Worse
Thorsteinn Siglaugsson wrote at Brownstone Institute The Chief Cause of Problems Is Bad Solutions. Excerpts in italics with my bolds and added images.
When H. William Dettmer started working with Dr. Eli Goldratt’s Thinking Process framework for solving profound problems in the 1990s, he soon realised how very often people focused on the wrong problems, and then spent their time and effort on figuring out root causes behind often trivial issues.
Dettmer’s solution to this was based on a simple, yet profound insight: A problem is not really a problem unless it prevents us from reaching our goal. The first step in problem-solving should therefore be to define the goal, and in Dettmer’s amended framework not only a goal but also the factors critical to achieve it. This way, focus on what actually mattered would be ensured; the problem solver could rest assured he was not wasting his time on trivialities.
What we perceive as important problems are often things that annoy us, but which really do not matter in the bigger context. I might perceive a cluttered inbox or a broken coffee machine in the office as a major problem, while those are totally unimportant to the long-term success of the company.
As long as I realise such issues are important only to me personally, no harm is done. But as soon as my focus shifts to the trivial problems and I become obsessed with them, I may be headed for wrong decisions, a situation exemplified by Eric Sevareid’s insight:
Eli Goldratt’s book, The Goal, is one of the most influential management books of all time and his ideas have had a profound impact, especially in production and project management. Goldratt’s first axiom is that every decision must aim at furthering the company’s overall goal. Self-evident as it may sound, all senior managers know the constant effort it takes to maintain this focus.
What happens if we have no clear goal? In that case any undesired change may come to be perceived as an important problem. The more sudden or unexpected the change, the more likely this is.
If there is no goal, we have no way to judge the importance.
What Goals Directed Covid Responses?
In the summer of 2020 I had a long discussion with a consultant friend in Paris, another of Goldratt’s disciples, on the situation and outlook after the Covid-19 crisis struck. Our first instinct was of course to try and define a goal. We agreed that when it comes to public health the goal should always be to minimise the loss of life-years, or rather quality-adjusted life-years, both now and in the future.
This was shortly after the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo had claimed that any severity of measures against the coronavirus was worth it, if they saved just one life. Across the world, national leaders constantly repeated the mantra of “following the science,” meaning the whole of society should be managed based on the advice of experts in a narrow field of medical science, focusing on suppressing or even eradicating a single disease. An ethics professor I interviewed in late 2020 said it was morally right to brush aside all concerns of collateral damage because we were “in a pandemic.”
Maximising the number of life-years might well be a proper goal for healthcare. It calls for both short and long-term strategies, including prevention, treatment, even nutritional policies and many other strategies. But when we look at society as a whole, the maximum number of life-years, even when “quality-adjusted,” is hardly a proper overall goal; it focuses on physical existence only, ignoring all the other complex factors which make life worth living.
What then about the goal of “following the science” or of preventing even just one death from a coronavirus at all costs? It should be obvious how absurd it is to view those as true goals when it comes to governing a society. But for some reason, over the past 30 months, those and other similar extremely narrow objectives became the chief goals of public health authorities and governments in almost the whole world.
There is little doubt that the phenomenon of mass formation described by Mattias Desmet has played a role here. I clearly remember how many people had convinced themselves that nothing mattered except to stop the virus in its tracks, to delay infections. And when I say nothing I mean nothing. “The only thing that matters is preventing infections,” someone told me back in 2020. And when I pressed him, asking if he meant the only thing that mattered in the whole wide world was slowing the spread of the virus, if everything else was really of no consequence, education, the economy, poverty, mental health; everything else, the answer was a resounding “Yes!”
Escaping the Problem Obsession Trap
What those cases have in common is how, in the absence of a goal, our focus is diverted towards a problem, otherwise insignificant, or at least not the only problem in the world, and eliminating the problem becomes the goal.
This is why the key to successful problem-solving is to first agree on a common goal, otherwise we may end up solving the wrong problems.
The loss of focus we have experienced during the past 30 months rests on two pillars. One is the power of mass formation. But the other one, no less important, is the loss of leadership. In both Sweden and the Faroe Islands the leadership, epidemiologist Anders Tegnell in the case of Sweden, and the government in the case of the Faroe Islands, never succumbed to irrational fear. If they had, it would surely have taken over in both countries.
The chief reason it didn’t was the stance taken by the leaders who, guided by common sense. never lost sight of the goal of government; ensuring the well-being of society as a whole, or, at the individual level, ensuring man’s possibility to live a full life, as Eli Goldratt once put it. Neither is clear-cut of course, but however fuzzy and imperfect the goal statement may be, once we lose sight of it, we are in grave danger of succumbing to mass formation. It only takes a sudden change or an unforeseen threat, blown out of proportion, unrestrained by the common goal.
When almost the whole world loses sight of the common goal of human society, and the elimination of a single problem, in the end a rather unimportant one, takes precedence over everything else, thus becoming the goal – a distorted and absurd one, a disastrous and ruinous one for sure – this is an indication of a fundamental loss of common sense.
A healthy society does not succumb to mass formation. The reason this can happen is that we have no common goal any more, no common sense. To get out of this situation and to avoid it in the future, we must find our goal again, we must reestablish our focus, we must regain our common sense.
Footnote: Preface to The Goal by Eli Goldratt
I view science as nothing more than an understanding of the way the world is and why it is that way. At any given time our scientific knowledge is simply the current state of the art of our understanding. I do not believe in absolute truths. I fear such beliefs because they block the search for better understanding. Whenever we think we have final answers progress, science, and better understanding ceases. Understanding of our world is not something to be pursued for its own sake, however. Knowledge should be pursued, I believe, to make our world better—to make life more fulfilling.
There are several reasons I chose a novel to explain my understanding of manufacturing—how it works (reality) and why it works that way. First, I want to make these principles more understandable and show how they can bring order to the chaos that so often exists in our plants. Second, I wanted to illustrate the power of this understanding and the benefits it can bring. The results achieved are not fantasy; they have been, and are being, achieved in real plants. The western world does not have to become a second or third rate manufacturing power. If we just understand and apply the correct principles, we can compete with anyone. I also hope that readers would see the validity and value of these principles in other organizations such as banks, hospitals, insurance companies and our families. Maybe the same potential for growth and improvement exists in all organizations.
Finally, and most importantly, I wanted to show that we can all be outstanding scientists. The secret of being a good scientist, I believe, lies not in our brain power. We have enough. We simply need to look at reality and think logically and precisely about what we see. The key ingredient is to have the courage to face inconsistencies between what we see and deduce and the way things are done. This challenging of basic assumptions is essential to breakthroughs. Almost everyone who has worked in a plant is at least uneasy about the use of cost accounting efficiencies to control our actions. Yet few have challenged this sacred cow directly. Progress in understanding requires that we challenge basic assumptions about how the world is and why it is that way. If we can better understand our world and the principles that govern it, I suspect all our lives will be better.
Good luck in your search for these principles and for your own understanding of “The Goal.”
Link to The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eli Goldratt