Pave the path, or pour a sidewalk

By Joe Limbaugh, Motion Industries

In the supply-chain world, we're often charged with creating order out of chaos. At times, the solution is hiding in plain sight and fairly easy to spot. Other times, however, the answer can be elusive.

I think that any time we mix too many words with too many numbers to solve a problem, we can run into trouble pretty quickly. It shouldn’t be that way when you consider that any of us who finished school through the eighth grade was well-trained and equipped with the tools and knowledge to battle this – we were taught how to deal with “the story problem." You remember those – If my neighbor’s dog has five bones, and I reach in and take away two, how many fingers will I have left?

Many people have a natural aversion to combining words, numbers, and letters, as it causes one to use multiple sets of mental muscles at once. And then you add fractions. Statistically speaking, it should come as no surprise that nine out of three people have trouble with fractions.

But there is another problem that's the result of well-meaning practitioners of problem-solving. We assume too much. We are trained to answer a question completely right off the bat. (Find X!) Is it possible that at times it would be better to solve the problem 80% of the way and see what happens next? Or perhaps we can recognize that we won’t be able to know what happens next, so we round up those who might have a better idea?

This runs headlong into another potential hazard, which is trying to solve the problem without all of the necessary information or data. In doing so, we run the risk of theorizing so deeply that we prejudice the outcome. This is not a new dilemma. Consider this quote from a famous fictional character: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Do you recall who said that? Sherlock Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia," which was first published in 1891.

A great example of “patience and problem-solving” is the idea of paving the path, as opposed to pouring the sidewalk. It is hard to source this concept as there are many stories about it. One deals with an architect back in the 1950s who was charged with adding buildings to an existing college campus. When he was reviewing the drawings with the committee, one of the members noted the lack of sidewalks. The architect advised that his plans were to leave the sidewalks out of the initial design and plant grass. After six months he would revisit the campus and lay in the sidewalks where the students had created a path. He reasoned that no matter where he designed the sidewalks, the students would identify the most efficient way to and from their studies. By waiting, he not only created a convenience for the students, but also in the long term he spared the grass.

In our industry, there are more opportunities than time, so there's a tendency to focus on quantity rather than quality. But it’s hard enough to see around one corner; to see around two is nearly impossible.

During a problem-solving meeting, we know when our distant vision begins to turn foggy. It’s at that moment that we should relax our expectations and wait for the path to emerge. This will take time and patience, and we’ll get some mud on our shoes in the short term. But in time, we'll have a permanent and efficient route for those behind us to tread. And the resulting grass will grow tall and green.