Then, Now, and Tomorrow: The Core of Management Is Problem Solving

What’s interesting about management history is that as society, technology and organizations have evolved, so have the methods, tools and techniques of problem solving—pretty much in lockstep. For instance, statistical process control (SPC) emerged at a time in the 1920s when companies were experiencing quality control issues, having transitioned from a craftsman- to a production-oriented economy (of course, they didn’t call it SPC then, but that’s what it was). With increased volumes, and an expectation for quality and consistency, SPC was the right tool at the right time to solve an important problem of the day.

It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that management became a solidified science, drawing of course on the many tools and techniques companies had been employing to solve their business and operational problems. Then, during specific times when specific intervention was needed, consultants and companies gathered up and packaged a certain set of problem-solving tools to rectify issues that were impinging on their ability to generate profits.

The rest is history. We have the Toyota Production System (TPS), which houses such tools as Gantt charts, Single Minute Exchange of Die (SMED) for conducting fast changeovers, Just-In-Time (JIT) supplier systems, Kanban inventory-management methods and so on. We have strategy tools such as the experience curve (Boston Consulting Group), the growth-share matrix (also BCG) and the five-forces framework (Porter). We have Management by Objectives (MBO), Lean Manufacturing, Total Quality Management (TQM), Reengineering, Six Sigma, Business Process Management (BPM)—and other monikers that are branded repositories for concepts, tools and techniques whose birth, development and value transcend any given period of time in economic or management history.

To drive the point, the Gantt chart has made its way into the toolkit of every major management program of the past century. Indeed the world has changed unrecognizably in the past 100 years, yet the Gantt chart, whether drawn and maintained with a quill pen or masterfully modified via modern software, remains a stalwart mainstay for, you guessed it, solving problems associated with project management.

The reality is that with little change, the same tools and techniques are recycled, over and over again. Just a few years back, Raytheon Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Swanson was taken to task for publishing a handbook, Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management. At the time, Swanson had appeared on the cover of leading business magazines and was considered by many to be an emerging business guru.

No one questioned the validity of content in Swanson’s book, which a blogger from Hewlett-Packard noted so closely mirrored a 1940s booklet by W.J. King, The Unwritten Laws of Engineering. Oops, caught with his pants down, Swanson had to ultimately admit that he [perhaps inadvertently] plagiarized the book, leading to a $1 million fine levied on him by Raytheon’s board.

It’s good drama that Swanson did what he did, and that he was caught. But let’s not get too drawn in by the drama. Let’s instead consider how interesting it was that Swanson took old wisdom, repackaged it and never got such questions as, “Mr. Swanson, the concepts and content of your book is interesting, but it’s clearly nothing new and, in fact, seems only to be a simple regurgitation of what we’ve known for more than 50 years.”

Here’s the tension to which we point, and the crux of this discussion: The past is flush with problem-solving tools that will stand the test of time, and corporate initiatives that will not. Given this, what will you do today, and into the future, to win? Will you embrace Six Sigma or Lean? Will you roll out an operational-excellence program, calling it X or Y or Z? What is it that you will do? How can we now anticipate the next wave of change and the wave after that, knowing the waves will come more frequently and unpredictably as the future unfolds?

The past is flush with problem-solving tools that will stand the test of time.

You can examine management history to see what’s changed and what hasn’t changed. After about 100 years, and 50 years of intense development, we hope you’ll see what we see: There are many needed principles and tools that are used to solve different business problems at different times, based on changing priorities over decade-long or longer business cycles.

We also see what’s not needed: the names MBO, TQM, Lean, TPS, Supply Chain Management, Six Sigma—even though the names can be important as corporations brand and push their initiatives to meet the challenges of the day. But they’re only as important as they’re able to transfer the key competency called problem solving.

At the Lean Methods Group, we don’t have a bunch of consultants running around who can only recite the vicissitudes of a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis, knowing that this tool is a critical one in the kit of any competent consultant today. And we surely don’t have a house full of experts who know all about Lean or Six Sigma, or even Lean Six Sigma, to the exclusion of understanding the verities of finance, value creation, strategy and the leading edge of how to best make corporate portfolio decisions.

We don’t have tool mongers; we have comprehensive business problem-solvers who, even in this specialized and complex global economy, know how to put the pieces together for specific clients with specific problems and challenges. Because we’ve boiled our long heritage down to the problem-solving core, we are intimately familiar with all sorts of powerful tools and techniques, but we apply them agnostically in regard to any specific management moniker.

Whatever works to solve the problem at hand is what we bring, and when we bring it, we won’t tell you we invented it (the Swanson syndrome). At the Lean Methods Group, we’ll either: 1) solve the problem with you, or 2) show you how to solve the problem yourself. The third option is for you to solve the problem entirely on your own, in which case you don’t need us, and to that we say, “Congratulations: more power to you.”

Our preference, of course, is always to solve problems with you and to enable you to solve them yourself. But there are times when a problem is so crippling that you simply need a solution, quickly, and you don’t care how you get it. That’s the real world, and we understand that.

In any case, you cannot argue with our basic premise: the ability to solve problems in business is synonymous with business success. Therefore, we (we, including you) need to ensure that our ability to solve problems grows throughout our lives. Merely taking a course on problem solving in a university (which most don’t do) isn’t enough. As we mature in life—and as we grow in business—we’re expected to deal with ever more challenging problems. While our life’s accumulated experiences are one way that we become better problem solvers, learning new and more sophisticated problem-solving tools must also be part of our life’s endeavor.

The ability to solve problems in business is synonymous with business success.

We also believe that we’ll see a new emphasis on the power of the human brain as a problem-solving tool emerging in the next 10 to 20 years. While it’s true that computing power continues to bring new and better problem-solving capability, it’s also true that computing is becoming available to anyone and everyone. When technology commoditization occurs in this manner, only the way people think and use the technology can achieve differentiation.

Technology has not and will not remove the onus of problem-solving from our shoulders; if anything, technology increases our problem-solving burden. While we can and should do what great companies have always done by hiring people who have an advanced and natural ability to solve problems, we better also make sure we get busy creating the right climate for these folks to flourish.