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Tripp Babbitt

Quality Insider

The Four Ways to Solve Problems

The most valuable method is often missed

Published: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 17:41

Do you find yourself trying to solve the same problems over and over again? Do you treat the symptom but not the source of problems? Do you get unintended consequences from “solutions” in your organization?

In the book, Idealized Design (FT Press, 2006), author Russell Ackoff discusses four ways to treat problems: absolution, resolution, solution, and dissolution. This column will discuss these four approaches and their value. Hopefully you will discover a desirable approach that you may have missed, and by its omission lead you to increased costs and missed revenue.

Absolution is the act of ignoring the problem in the hope that it will resolve itself or be resolved by someone else. For those with an understanding of variation, often the best solution is taking no action because the problem is rooted in common-cause variation. To do otherwise would be to tamper with the system and make things worse. Note: For those who don’t understand variation, I would direct you to Donald Wheeler’s articles and books—especially Understanding Variation (SPC Press, 2000).

Resolution is composed of two parts. One is determining if a similar problem has arisen before and seeing if the past approach can be used for the present problem. The second is to look for all changes made prior to the problem revealing itself, and taking the problem back to the original state or condition. This is not the best solution but satisfies or suffices.

Solutions seek the best possible outcome. Solutions are the most frequently (and incorrectly) deployed problem-solving method. Problem solving has become the focus of managers as they seek to optimize. Analysis of the problem is done to aid in finding the optimal solution.

Dissolution is the fourth and most highly-valued approach to problem solving. Dissolution is the means of preventing a problem. Dissolving or eliminating a problem can be achieved through redesign. This is a reason redesign (i.e., for effectiveness) and can be more desirable than process improvement (for efficiency).


Mark is the help-desk manager of a hospital. He analyzes his call types and discovers that 31 percent of his calls come from users wanting to know the status of their problems. Mark is keen to eliminate these no-value calls and lower the calls to his help desk. He lowers the calls by putting status updates in a portal where users can retrieve them.

Is this dissolution?

On the surface, the answer could be yes. Mark has lowered the number of calls by setting up the portal—and the problem is solved for the help desk. However, when you look at the system and its aim, this approach is not dissolution. The aim of technology is to help users do work, not to add more work to their day by checking statuses. The “solution” in this case was not optimal and added more work for users. Think about it: You have more waste in building a portal and having users check the status. The resources could be used to prevent the tickets from happening in the first place rather than adding more waste.

The scenario and solution Mark faced is something I see frequently. The solution is what Russell Ackoff would describe as “doing the wrong thing, righter.” Achieving dissolution requires a holistic redesign of the organization, not just the help desk. The help desk is where the problem shows up, which often is not where the problem started. If you ignore the opportunity to dissolve a problem, waste follows and costs increase.

Technology is not the only area where you can find missed opportunities for dissolving problems. Constant inspection or auditing, customer complaints, and low worker morale are the smoke to the fire of poorly designed work.

What to do

Selling solutions and problem solving are built into U.S. (and many other) organizational cultures. Providing solutions is what makes us good managers, salespeople, and employees. Many have been trained to optimize what we can control, which is usually a function or piece of a larger system. Bonuses and survival can dictate our actions with this design. This gives the unfortunate consequences of what W. Edwards Deming referred to as “suboptimization.”

Suboptimization is what you get when a function of a larger system attempts to optimize a piece at the expense of the whole. A sales team can optimize the revenue coming in, but if the organization cannot deliver the product or service, customers become dissatisfied, which leads to lost sales. All functions of an organization must work together.

In order to work together, organizations must learn to synthesize—meaning, to see the organization in its entirety and not just as individual roles or functions. This differs from analysis or the act of breaking problems into pieces. Synthesis is a missing discipline from organizations. When conducting workshops on the subject of synthesis, I bring workers and managers from across the organization together to study customers and organizational culture, and their interaction and influence on the organization’s design. Viewing an organization end-to-end uncovers the customer view and the perspectives (i.e., beliefs and assumptions) that drive organizational design. This brings about an awareness of the realities of performance and what drives it.

Learning to synthesize or put the pieces together into a whole can reveal much of the waste in the design. Dissolution of organizational problems through properly executed redesign leads to breakthrough performance—something that process improvement and solutions focused on functional separation simply cannot deliver.


About The Author

Tripp Babbitt’s picture

Tripp Babbitt

Tripp Babbitt is a service design architect who helps organizations discover a better way to improve thier service. His 95 Method is about giving organizations a method to try out different design ideas leading to better service.  Start by downloading his free ebook or book an on-site workshop. Babbitt can be reached at tripp@newsystemsthinking.com. Reach him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TriBabbitt or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt