The Three Dis’s of Problem Solving

I once worked for a manager who had a plaque on the wall that was simply a large capital letter “D” followed by the a superscript numeral “4” which a middle school algebra scholar would read “D to the fourth power.” This sign was always an attention getter and conversation starter for those who sat in front of his desk and glanced up at the wall. When asked, he explained that this was the simple philosophy that kept him out of trouble and he would look at this as a warning every time he made a critical decision. The meaning? “Don’t Do Dumb Deeds.” It was a simple concept but a constant reminder to him that if something didn’t really make sense on second thought it probably was not a good idea.

Sometimes the memory tricks to remember essential rules for critical thinking don’t come from scholarly research or an Earth shattering revelation of truth from a wise philosopher. Whoever came up with the KISS concept (Keep It Simple Stupid) is anonymous but taught us not to over think a simple problem. Today I am introducing my Three Dis’s of Problem Solving, a concept that will be immediately recognized as one of those non-scholarly, non-Earth-shattering but hopefully memorable mind tricks.

Discover – The first Dis may sound too obvious as a first step in solving a problem, but to many in positions of power it is never considered. This is critical for two reasons. First it is important to uncover what the problem being solved is all about. Treating a symptom rather than the root cause is not a solution but only a Band-Aid stopgap. In human resources or any people management role the complexity is multiplied by the number of people involved, none of whom may actually know there is a problem or what is causing it. The second important reason that discovery is necessary is that there are institutional policy traffic cops who assume the job of problem solving when there is no problem. Running around and making changes without any reason happens every day because every idea becomes a solution looking for a problem. Progress does not come from action alone but from results. This is probably a good point to remember the D4 mantra from my former boss.

Disable – Once the problem is clearly identified, the next step in this oversimplified process is to fix it so that it won’t happen again. When machinery is involved, repairing or replacing the defect is the solution. When people are part of the problem it becomes more complex. First and most important of all is the fact that a management knee-jerk reaction assuming the concept of defective people in the organization that can be repaired or replaced is itself a huge problem. In the majority of cases we will find that disabling the problem means replacing defective instruction, procedures or training. Management induced problems can only be solved by altering the total of all elements of the work environment without creating new problems. Thought processes that include a test of the solution before full implementation will allow for additional corrective action before bringing the problem solving to a successful close.

Disengage – Too often problems that are a rare occurrence can draw so much attention in the short term that those in charge feel that the solution needs to be memorialized in policy forever. It may be difficult to understand while still in the shadow of the problem that one serious incident may be an outlier on the timeline. If this blip on the curve becomes a punishment for all who follow, the results may not be catastrophic but can cause a serious degradation of morale, efficiency and productivity. Policies and procedures need to have a positive rather than restrictive tone. They also need to be enforceable. If the expenditure of resources for enforcement exceeds the value of the outcome then it is not a real solution to the problem. In fact ignoring this Dis creates the need for beginning the process all over by giving the policy police a reason to witch hunt for this or other problems.   

There it is. Find out what causes the problem, fix the problem and move on. This philosophy is not an epic management breakthrough to be carved in marble for future generations, but maybe it will warrant a print-out in a frame hanging on the wall of my office. I will always be happy to explain (Dis)3 to anyone that asks.


Image credit: gold plaque rustyphil / 123RF Stock Photo (Modified)