Problem Solving: When Theory Meets Practice

Many years ago I was working with a small business producing industrial fume scrubbing equipment. My role was to provide management training and related development services to the managing director and his management team.

On this particular day I was running a session on the theme of problem solving.

I thought the session was going very well! I had explored linear approaches to solving problems and was beginning to work with the team on lateral, including brainstorming, approaches to problem solving.

Suddenly, the managing director said “Stop talking Peter! I want everyone to listen.”

As silence enveloped the training room we could all distinctly hear a regular banging noise coming from the factory floor. The M.D. said “Now there is a problem!”

Not unreasonably, I asked “What is that noise?” The managing director said “Let’s all go and have a look!”

There was quite a stir on the factory floor when a small procession arrived, led by myself and the M.D., together with every member of the Company’s management team.

Two fabrication workers were standing on ladders striking a large cylindrical plastic pipe in order to fit it inside another plastic pipe of a slightly larger diameter.

“What is the problem?”, I asked.

“Well it’s pretty obvious isn’t it?”, said the M.D.”When working with plastics it isn’t possible to achieve the exact tolerances that can be obtained when working, for example, with steel or other metals. The best we can do is to achieve an approximation of the required diameters of both pipes, knowing that we then have to fit one pipe inside the other to provide a sufficiently strong structure for containing gas emissions within the fume scrubber.”

“How long has this been a problem?” I asked. “We’ve had to do it this way for years, and I’m concerned that, one of these days, someone is going to get injured using the present method”, he said. “Let’s all go back to the training room” I suggested. So we did.

Finding The Solution

I could see that my credibility as a development consultant was undoubtedly on the line. Even so, I decided that the best way forward was to continue the session with a brainstorming exercise on possible alternative approaches to the highly specific problem we had just witnessed.

First we wrote a definition of the problem on the white board. Simply stated, the problem was “how best to fit one cylindrical plastic pipe tightly inside another cylindrical plastic pipe of a slightly larger diameter”.

Even before the brainstorming session began I had intuited (as maybe you have by now!) what the solution might be! However, it is a central tenet of effective management development work that you must, wherever possible, encourage your client to examine their problem and come up with a workable solution thought through, proposed, and therefore owned by them, not by the consultant!

So the brainstorm began.

Many ideas and keywords were thrown into the room by all present. These included flotation of the pipes in order to float one pipe inside the other: manufacturing the plastic pipes more accurately so that they would be easier to slide together: shrinking one of the pipes so that it would slide inside the other and fit tightly once it had expanded again: using bigger rubber hammers to bang the pipes together… then somebody said just one word, “Heat!”.

I felt very excited as I wrote the little word ‘heat’ on the whiteboard and tried to sound casual when I asked if there were any further suggestions. I was not surprised that no further suggestions were forthcoming. Every face in the room had the same expression, most easily described as “AHA!”

Problem Solved…

I played the theorist for a little while longer, asking the team which of the brainstormed suggestions was most likely to be helpful in solving the problem. Almost in one voice, the team suggested that heat was the most promising approach!

By the end of the day there was no longer a problem. The heating gantry, a standard cold weather facility in the factory’s workshops, was brought into use to heat up the larger of the two plastic cylinders to the point where the unheated smaller cylinder could simply be dropped inside it, thereby achieving a perfect “shrink fit”; an ideal solution, achieved safely, swiftly and inexpensively using existing equipment, plus achieving a better, more tight-fitting product. I went home that day feeling elated! I felt that this was the single best example in my experience of theory meeting practice and proving equal to the challenge.

In my next 1 to 1 discussion with the M.D., I asked him why he thought that the firm had tolerated this problem for so many years without solving it. He said “It’s obvious Peter! We had never given focused attention to the problem until yesterday’s training session. The focus achieved when we all witnessed precisely what the problem was – then defined it and brainstormed potential solutions – was the reason we were able, so quickly, to come up with what was always an obvious solution.”

So maybe the next time you come across what seems to be an intractable (or even an insoluble) problem, you will remember this true story!

There is a very old proverb that every problem contains within it the seeds of its own solution!

In Summary:

  1. Observe the problem and focus closely upon it.
  2. Define the problem as precisely and simply as possible.
  3. Use both linear and lateral thinking approaches to list, or brainstorm, keywords or short phrases that might play a part in achieving a satisfactory solution to the problem.
  4. When all ideas have been gathered, initially without discussion of their individual merits and demerits, examine the list and see if the key to the solution is not already written down, ready to be explored, developed and implemented.

AN AFTERTHOUGHT! “If all else fails, read the instructions! If all else STILL fails, follow them!”

by Ian Flemming and Peter Collett

Peter Collett, Sheffield, United Kingdom

You can e-mail Ian or Peter at

Peter is a development specialist from Yorkshire, England, whose background includes training managers in the U.K. Civil Service and in large and small businesses in the private sector. He has also worked widely in I.T. systems development and testing, quality management systems design and development, plus commercial and technical authoring of plain English open and distance learning modules on a wide variety of management and development themes.

He describes himself as ‘fascinated with the learning process’ – the whole issue of how and why people learn (or fail to learn!) from cradle to grave.  He is hoping never to recover from this fascination!

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