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Akhilesh Gulati

Six Sigma

Don’t Think Logically!

Use your imagination.

Published: Thursday, October 23, 2008 - 16:24

A physics exam question asked students to describe how they would use a barometer to measure the height of a skyscraper. One student who failed the test contested that his answer was correct. He was given a second chance to defend his position, verbally, to the professor. When the student didn’t answer right away, the professor challenged him stating that he didn’t have an answer after all. At this point, the student said that he had lots of answers, only he wasn’t sure which answer the professor wanted. He started by giving the following answers:

  • Tie the barometer to a string and lower that from the roof of the skyscraper. When it touched the ground, add the length of the string with the length of the instrument and calculate the height of the building.
  • Go to the caretaker’s office and offer him the barometer in exchange for a look at the buildings plans to get the height of the skyscraper.
  • Go the boring route of calculating the difference of the pressure at the base and at the top of the building to determine the height of the skyscraper.

Most of us would have thought of only the last solution because that is how we are taught to think—logically. However, lateral thinking is more fun and can sometimes lead to easier and better solutions.

Going the logical route doesn’t always produce the best answer, but we’re taught to think logically in school using a step-by-step method. In a sense, logic makes for boring solutions and can take away our ability to think freely. Logic can limit our thinking and often our ability to explore new solutions. Here’s another example to prove that concept:

Many years ago, in a small Indian village, a farmer had the misfortune of owing a large sum of money to a village moneylender. The moneylender, who was old and ugly, fancied the farmer’s beautiful daughter, so he proposed a bargain. He said he would forgo the farmer’s debt if he could marry his daughter. The farmer and his daughter were horrified by the proposal.

The cunning moneylender suggested that they let providence decide the matter. He told them that he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty pouch. Then the girl would have to pick one pebble from the bag:

  • If she picked the black pebble, she would become his wife and her father’s debt would be forgiven.
  • If she picked the white pebble, she need not marry him and her father’s debt would still be forgiven.
  • If she refused to pick a pebble, her father would be thrown into jail.

They were standing on a pebble-strewn path in the farmer’s field. As they talked, the moneylender bent over and picked up two pebbles. The sharp-eyed girl noticed that he had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the pouch. He then asked the girl to pick a pebble from the pouch.

What would you have done if you were the girl? If you had to advise her, what would you have told her? Logical analysis produces three possibilities:

  • The girl should refuse to take a pebble.
  • The girl should show that there were two black pebbles in the pouch and expose the moneylender as a cheat.
  • The girl should pick a black pebble and sacrifice herself to save her father from his debt and imprisonment.

The girl’s dilemma cannot be solved with traditional logical thinking. To not marry the moneylender and to have her father’s debt forgiven, none of these choices will work. However, thinking laterally, she was able to come up with this creative solution. The girl put her hand into the moneybag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled and let it fall onto the pebble-strewn path where it immediately became lost among all the other pebbles.

“Oh, how clumsy of me,” she said. “But if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.”

With the black pebble remaining, it must be assumed that she picked the white one. Because the moneylender dare not admit his dishonesty, the girl changed what seemed to be an impossible situation into an extremely advantageous one.

This and the first example enable us to see the difference between lateral and logical thinking. It helps us redefine the problem statement and see it in a different light. It tells us that most complex problems have a solution. It also shows that either we don’t attempt to think or haven’t been taught to think laterally. Fortunately, there are many tools (e.g., brain-storming, mind mapping, flowcharting, etc.) that can help us expand our thinking to arrive at creative solutions. While logic has its place and we cannot do without it, let’s give our brains some lateral thoughts. For a change, stop thinking logically!


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.