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Does Brain Power Help or Hurt Problem Solving?

This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

Have you ever spent money, time, and human resources to resolve a problem only to have that same problem resurface? You are not alone.

Many teams have been trained in a scientific problem-solving process. Companies often use formal team huddle or problem-solving meetings to address identified problems.

So why, even with all this effort, do problems too often reoccur? Have you ever considered that structured problem-solving methods and tools are only half of the equation?

Recent findings from the field of brain science help us understand why. Key findings indicate that the scientific approach to problem solving is very difficult for the human brain, so in reality we struggle with it.

Problem Solving is Taxing on the Brain

To conserve energy, the brain wants to rely on past experience to problem solve, which limits finding new or better solutions. Furthermore, disciplined problem solving takes the brain out of its natural, comfort zone. Reviewing facts, questioning differences and devising solutions consume more energy. The brain often senses this as a threat or challenge, and it signals a release of adrenaline, which can trigger a fight, flight or freeze behavior (f3)… not what we want to effectively solve problems.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s research and writings describe how the brain uses two thinking systems to address problems.

System 1: Fast Thinking

Fast Thinking is related to the brain’s survival instincts. It is automatic, does not follow a structured process, requires less energy, and is designed for an individual to make quick decisions. It is the brain’s default problem-solving strategy.

Because organizations often want quick fixes it would seem that fast thinking would be the best approach to problem-solving; but not so. Driven by an arbitrary time deadline the brain takes shortcuts relying on limited data from experience, past decisions, beliefs and assumptions. As a result the problem is often ill defined and the team will jump to solutions because little effort is expended to uncover the root cause.

System 2: Slow Thinking

Slow Thinking requires the brain to shift from its default mode and engage the Prefrontal Cortex, which manages the brain’s executive planning and decision-making functions. While this requires greater mental effort and uses more energy, it produces better solutions to problems. This thought process is required when solving complex problems that require weighing complicated alternatives and making difficult decisions.

How to get Better Solutions

Firefighting and quick fixes often fail to address root causes. As a leader, you can help teams engage Slow Thinking, to address problems in a way that reduces the chance that problems will return. Here are five recommendations:

  1. Lead the team in following a structured problem-solving process
  2. Include operators in defining the problem
  3. Don’t place blame, have the team uncover what happened
  4. Challenge assumptions, ask questions and focus on facts and data
  5. Resist the instinct to rush to solutions

Try it yourself. Consider the costs of scrap, rework, downtime and customer complaints and move a fraction of those costs into an investment in ‘Slower’ problem-solving. I think you’ll find fewer repeat problems, as well as helping to further drive a culture of excellence in your company.

About the Author

Murray SittsamerMurray Sittsamer is president of The Luminous Group. He may be reached at 248-561-5802 or murray@luminousgroup.com.

 

Ken WoodsideKen Woodside, Ph.D., is an associate with The Luminous Group. He may be reached at 248-538-8677.

This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

Have you ever spent money, time, and human resources to resolve a problem only to have that same problem resurface? You are not alone.

Many teams have been trained in a scientific problem-solving process. Companies often use formal team huddle or problem-solving meetings to address identified problems.

So why, even with all this effort, do problems too often reoccur? Have you ever considered that structured problem-solving methods and tools are only half of the equation?

Recent findings from the field of brain science help us understand why. Key findings indicate that the scientific approach to problem solving is very difficult for the human brain, so in reality we struggle with it.

Problem Solving is Taxing on the Brain

To conserve energy, the brain wants to rely on past experience to problem solve, which limits finding new or better solutions. Furthermore, disciplined problem solving takes the brain out of its natural, comfort zone. Reviewing facts, questioning differences and devising solutions consume more energy. The brain often senses this as a threat or challenge, and it signals a release of adrenaline, which can trigger a fight, flight or freeze behavior (f3)… not what we want to effectively solve problems.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s research and writings describe how the brain uses two thinking systems to address problems.

System 1: Fast Thinking

Fast Thinking is related to the brain’s survival instincts. It is automatic, does not follow a structured process, requires less energy, and is designed for an individual to make quick decisions. It is the brain’s default problem-solving strategy.

Because organizations often want quick fixes it would seem that fast thinking would be the best approach to problem-solving; but not so. Driven by an arbitrary time deadline the brain takes shortcuts relying on limited data from experience, past decisions, beliefs and assumptions. As a result the problem is often ill defined and the team will jump to solutions because little effort is expended to uncover the root cause.

System 2: Slow Thinking

Slow Thinking requires the brain to shift from its default mode and engage the Prefrontal Cortex, which manages the brain’s executive planning and decision-making functions. While this requires greater mental effort and uses more energy, it produces better solutions to problems. This thought process is required when solving complex problems that require weighing complicated alternatives and making difficult decisions.

How to get Better Solutions

Firefighting and quick fixes often fail to address root causes. As a leader, you can help teams engage Slow Thinking, to address problems in a way that reduces the chance that problems will return. Here are five recommendations:

  1. Lead the team in following a structured problem-solving process
  2. Include operators in defining the problem
  3. Don’t place blame, have the team uncover what happened
  4. Challenge assumptions, ask questions and focus on facts and data
  5. Resist the instinct to rush to solutions

Try it yourself. Consider the costs of scrap, rework, downtime and customer complaints and move a fraction of those costs into an investment in ‘Slower’ problem-solving. I think you’ll find fewer repeat problems, as well as helping to further drive a culture of excellence in your company.

About the Author

Murray SittsamerMurray Sittsamer is president of The Luminous Group. He may be reached at 248-561-5802 or murray@luminousgroup.com.

 

Ken WoodsideKen Woodside, Ph.D., is an associate with The Luminous Group. He may be reached at 248-538-8677.