Monday, 5 January 2015

Problem Solving !

Problem solving is a widely talked about subject in many industries today. Research in problem solving has made quite a progress since the 1950s, be it in the psychology or cognitive sciences department or computer science and engineering department, problem solving methods are continuously being studied and improved upon. 

One essential point to note is that there are methods to solve a problem. If you were to search for problem solving on Google, you will have about 59,700,000 hits. An overwhelming number no doubt. It is however important, in my opinion, to note that problem solving methods does not follow a one size fits all principle. You may need to adopt a different problem solving method in different industries or different circumstances. 

Building Management is no doubt a problem solving job. Lets face it, if there are no problems than there are no need for building managers. Regardless of the type of building a building manager manage they are always faced with a myriad of problems on a daily basis. While the nature of most of the problems may be similar, there are however some differences which varies according to the type of building. We shall not delve deep into the similarities and differences in the types of problems faced as it is not really the main aim of this entry. 

The problems that a building manager face may range from technical problems to legal problems.  According to Roger Dawson in his book “ Secrets of Power Problem Solving,” problems can be separated into either a money problem or people problem. Through my experience, i find that this is exceptionally true especially in the case of the building management industry. No matter how many meetings, discussions or brainstorming session that you may have on a problem it all boils down to whether it is a people problem or a money problem. The next time you are in an Owner’s Association meetings or Management Council meetings just observe if this bit of information i just provided you with fits in the situation you are in. 

By identifying if it is a money problem or a people problem  you can safely say that you have half the battle won as you now know who or what you have to address. Let me give you a scenario to help you understand the above point better. Lets say for example there are talks that the lifts in the building you are managing needs upgrading. So yourself together with the owners of the building and the lift engineers hold a meeting to discuss the matter. After the building owners have specified their intentions and requirements, the lift engineer or representative from the lift company proceed to submit their proposal and quotations.  After receiving these, the owners of the building couldn't seem to decide if they should go ahead with the upgrading works. Now if you listen carefully during the meeting you can discern if the problem is actually a problem with people or money. Maybe  the main cause of the debate is because there is limited money to fund the project. If this is the case than you can facilitate to zoom in on this point during the meeting and offer ways to work around the problem or simply inform them that based on the limited fund upgrading the lifts may not be a good idea or alternatively you can give them suggestion so how to raise the money or how to work around this money problem. There is a good chance that the existing lifts are still in good working order and can last for many more years. Forgive me for not being able to give you a more lucid example at this point but in general I'm confident that you do get what i am trying to express. 

Regardless of how complex a problem is it is always a function of a few major factors, so states Morgan D. Jones in his book “ The Thinker’s Toolkit, 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving.”
One important thought process that i have before i begin with the problem solving process is “ Does the problem need or deserve a solution?” . Well the answer is rarely no, and no  I’m not asking this question just to amuse myself, it is a genuine question that helps intervene an exhaustive, mentally and emotionally draining problem solving process. If you think about it, not every problem needs a solution, especially if it is a one off thing. Sometimes by attempting to solve this so called “problem”  you are making things more complicated for yourself  and the various stakeholders. 

In your attempt to solve a problem you may come across various set backs and most of the time these setbacks are self imposed. Self imposed? How? you may ask. Well if you google problem solving you may stumble upon the concept of  “mental set”. Mental set is basically your nature of falling back into using tried and tested method/s to solve a problem. When a solution to a problem has worked well previously, we tend to stick to the method without exploring other more effective solution. From carpark management problems to security problems, we tend to use the tried and tested solutions that has worked previously without attempting to think of new, innovative and more effective solution. In your career in building management i am sure you have come across a lot of similar problems over the years and many building managers end up employing the same method to solve problems and not think of a new and better solution. So how do you avoid falling into this trap? This is a true challenge. How do we train ourself to be innovative and think outside the box? Well the answer is by looking at a problem from a different angle, from a fresh and new perspective. 
One way of looking at a problem from a fresh or new perspective is through restating or redefining the problem. State the problem differently from “What causes the lifts to breakdown?” to “What makes the lifts work smoothly?” . If you can see by just turning the question you automatically changes your focus and the way you think . 

In order to solve a problem,you will need to get to the root cause and one method i like to use to get to the root cause of the problem is by employing Sakichi Toyoda’s concept of 5 Whys. Sakici Toyoda says that in order to get to the source of the problem you will need to get to ask Why 5 times. Usually I like to use this method to define if a problem is a money problem or a people problem. 

To illustrate this better, let me give you and example so that you can understand what I am trying to tell you. Lets say your security guards keep falling asleep while on duty and the security company is not giving much help to solve your problem. Now to determine if its a money or people problem, employ the 5 whys technique. why is the security service level low? Because the guards are not doing their duty well.Why is the guard not doing their duties well? Because they keep falling asleep.Why does the guard keep falling asleep? Because he has two jobs.Why does the guard have two jobs? Because his basic salary as a guard is not enough.Why is their basic salary not enough? Because his company is not paying him well? So from here you know that the problem is money. If you pay the company well, their security guard can afford to just keep one job and have enough rest so that he can perform his night duty well. 

There are many methods you can use to solve problems. Above are just some method that i find useful and have personally used on occasions to solve some of the problems faced while serving in the building industry. 


The Decision Book, 50 models for Strategic Thinking, Mikael Krogerus & Roman Tschapper, W.W Norton & Company, New York London

Secrets of Power Problem Solving, Roger Dawson, Career Press, New Jersey, 2011.
The Thinker’s Toolkit, 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving, Morgan D. Jones, Three Rivers Press, New York,1998
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