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Why You Must Solve Problems in Pieces

My firm sent me on a consulting assignment with a chemical manufacturer some years ago. I was working with a team trying to solve a business problem. Their customers, farmers, were complaining about a fertilizer product they produced. Farmers would find caked chemicals inside many of the fertilizer bags.

These farmers need fertilizer to be in the form of prill (tiny little balls) so it would roll of the leaves when thrown into the crops. The problem with this company's fertilizer was bad enough for many farmers to switch to a competitor.

Now, the team was trying to solve the problem quickly. With the end of the year approaching they were racing against time. They first tried to ask shop keepers and storage staff to keep moving bags every few days. That was not enforceable. Then they tried to ask the loading staff to throw the bags with some force while loading and unloading. That also didn’t work. Finally they decided to use structured problem solving. Before I tell you how, let’s talk about what Problem Solving is.

Whether you are the CEO of a company of a humble employee, you face problems every day that need solving. You may be trying to solve a global financial crisis, save money for your company or just figure out the right way to stop a chemical leak.

Some people are good at solving problems. They add value to their company and are appreciated. In fact, if you think about it, being able to solve problems and make good decisions is what sets you apart from everyone else in the organization. There are decisions that must be made every day. The knowledge workers of today are paid to make good decisions.

Now, back to my story about the Fertilizer bags. The team asked themselves a list of very serious questions.

  1. What happens to the bag from the time it is produced at the plant to the time it gets to the customer

  2. What could be all the reasons for caking of the product?

  3. How are these reasons related to each other?

  4. What could be some possible ways of solving this problem?

  5. Which of these solutions are suitable, feasible and acceptable?

  6. Is there anything that can go wrong if we apply a solution?

  7. What is the best way to divide up the solution into bite-size pieces of work?

The outcome of this structured problem solving was that they experimented with a different chemical composition and developed a new recipe that did not coagulate. That company is still selling fertilizer and is one of the best in Pakistan!

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