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Akhilesh Gulati

Quality Insider

Locked in Solution Thinking, Part 1

Revisit the what and how of your achievements

Published: Tuesday, October 4, 2011 - 14:28

During a recent strategic planning session with a county’s leadership council, the participants were asked about their vision for their departments as they worked on a template for the strategic plan. Although there were many responses, one that stood out clearly came from the chief of one of the fire stations. “I see a fire station on every corner,” he said.

Although this certainly created a visual, it was somewhat uncreative and shallow, representing a rather expensive and limited vision. Here was a leader locked into a solution… locked not into a vision of service or success, but of doing more of the same. This statement clearly indicated the need for a change in mindset.

What sort of a culture do you think this kind of thinking leads to? How likely is it to lead to success? What is the likelihood of budgets being approved for such a “vision?” How likely is it to get buy-in from either the taxpayers or from the county leadership? It says nothing about what this would achieve. It says nothing about how this would be beneficial, or how that change would be measured. It doesn’t convey anything about underlying issues.

Such a vision often leads to a complaining culture rather than one focused on achievement.

Although solution orientation is good, how one gets there is critical. The first step to becoming solution-oriented is to have issue-oriented thinking. Understanding the reason for change is paramount. Stating the problem and solution in an “if/then” format forces an understanding of the real issue (e.g., if this is the problem, then this is the solution). In addition, using the 5 Whys questioning process enables deeper digging to unearth the root cause of the problem. Exposing the real issue forces participants to come up with the most effective solution, given the current (and possibly future) constraints.

A good strategic plan is driven by good analysis, but too often that’s done infrequently or not thoroughly enough. People get settled in their thought processes and locked into their solutions. If business continues to be successful, then it will be assumed that the previous analysis told stakeholders what they needed to know, and ergo the plan is OK. Often a company will have a clear vision and mission, and the business progresses, but its strategic plan is not being reviewed, and therefore performance is suboptimized.

Going back to basics is hard, but well worth the effort. By carefully reviewing the issues and applying a solution-oriented, problem-solving approach, organizations can create a strategic plan that increases the likelihood that they achieve their visions.

Back to the county’s strategic planning session and the comment about a fire station on every block: What do you think of the chief’s vision? What do you think it was that the chief was trying to achieve with his answer? What do you think was the real issue that the chief thought lots of fire stations would resolve?

My next article will show how using some of the aforementioned tools (e.g., if/then thinking, 5 Whys) helped the county leadership council unearth the real issues so their efforts could be focused on designing creative solutions.

Meanwhile, I would like to hear your comments.


About The Author

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

Akhilesh Gulati

Akhilesh Gulati has 25 years of experience in operational excellence, process redesign, lean, Six Sigma, strategic planning, and TRIZ (structured innovation) training and consulting in a variety of industries. Gulati is the Principal consultant at PIVOT Management Consultants and the CEO of the analytics firm Pivot Adapt Inc. in S. California. Akhilesh holds an MS from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and MBA from UCLA, is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Balanced Scorecard Professional.


Ask Why






You pose some very interesting questions, especially for the fire service.
Although there are some very progressive fire agencies across the country, many
have never ventured down the path of strategic planning. From an operational
perspective, the chief had a vision of a fire station on every corner; although
not necessary or economically feasible, I'm sure you could flush out why that
was his vision by asking why as you mentioned in the article. I imagine his
answer would be something close to "so response times are
short"...why..."so we can intervene with our critical tasking before
flashover occurs in a fire or brain death occurs on a
medical"....why....."so we can have a positive outcome on the
citizens we serve".....and so on.

The fire service is steeped in tradition, and only now in the midst of an
economic downturn are they looking to the private sector for cues on how to
survive. By asking why, looking for the root cause, researching different
methods of not only deploying, but preventing incidents all together and
utilizing sound data and reasoning can the fire service evolve with the needs
of the citizens they serve. By teaching all areas of government to shift to an
outcome based thinking model, we can increase efficiencies and service levels
while decreasing the financial liabilities placed upon our customers.

I would ask how you are teaching the county to shift their thinking and what
tools are you giving them to measure their successes? Although measuring KPI's
is great, many times in the early stages an agency will measure anything and
everything, even without looking at how it impacts the actual outcomes. Do you
have a best practice model that you believe would work for the fire service?

Thanks for the work on this article, it was very timely with what local
governments, especially the fire service are experiencing.