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Problem Solving Skills 3 0f 4

STEPS IN CONSTRUCTING AN EVAPORATING CLOUD

While solving a well-constructed evaporating cloud can be relatively straightforward, the greatest difficulty that most people with limited experience have is to construct the cloud in the first place. While it seems simple to someone who has had plenty of experience, a number of novices find that a blank page is more difficult to fill than they had originally expected. To this end, a number of intermediate steps have been suggested that may help those with less experience. The follow­ing is a suggested procedure that outlines such steps.

Step 1 in Constructing an Evaporating Cloud

Assuming that you have a problem situation where you are fairly con­fident that a conflict exists, the first step would be to write down a limited number of the effects (5 to 10) that you find undesirable about the specific situation. A good suggestion is to use one index card to write down each effect separately. Note that each effect should be a statement of fact that reflects the situation as objectively as possible. It is important that a statement should not draw conclusions within itself.
For instance, there should be no statements starting with the expression: "We need____ ." Similarly, there should be only one effect per statement. There should be no statements with the words "because" or the "if____ , then___ " either. In the statement, avoid the tendency to explain why you feel that the effect occurs, since this would be an implied "because." In other words, rather than a statement such as: "I don't have enough time to get the job done," express it as "the job is not done on time." The intent here is to concentrate on the end effects that occur, rather than immediately suggesting a cause for the effects that we notice. Cause and effect logic should be more rigorously de­fined, if it is to be useful in analyzing such problems.

Step 2 in Constructing an Evaporating Cloud

Step 2 is to choose one of the important effects that you have defined. A good choice would be the most annoying of the effects that happens. In order to draw out the pertinent aspects of the situation you havechosen, a suggested step is to write a brief story that describes the situation in four or five sentences. The story should include the an­swers to some of the following questions:

1.        Why is that condition bad or undesirable?

2.        In what way is it undesirable?

3.   Why do you put up with the effect?

4.   What is being jeopardized by the effect?

5.        Is there a specific action resulting from this effect that you find
yourself complaining about?

6.        Or is there an action causing the bad effect?

7.        Does this effect ever put you into a conflict? If so, describe the
conflict.

An example of such a story is shown here, in the context of an industrial supplier that is facing a difficult situation. Note that many but not all of the questions listed above are addressed in the brief story. The effect that was chosen as the subject of the story is, "Our company is under constant pressure to reduce our prices."

The accompanying story is the following: "The competitive envi­ronment we face has become fiercer than ever. Every time we have gained some small advantage in terms of higher quality, more customi­zation, or shorter lead time, our competitors have matched us. Given the increasing pressure from our customers to reduce their costs, the only way we have found to keep from losing sales is to reduce our prices. This jeopardizes our future because the low margins make this business unprofitable, and keep us from investing in the technology we will need, to stay competitive in the future. We have a continuing conflict between keeping prices high enough to make a profit, and meeting the customers' demands for lower prices."

At this point, in order to learn from this process, you should de­velop your own list of effects related to a real problem situation that you face, and develop a brief story along the lines of the example shown above.

Step 3 in Constructing an Evaporating Cloud

Step 3 is to identify the components of your story that deal with the questions in the list above. In the example shown here, the story is repeated, with the relevant question numbers at the start of the phrase that deals with a specific question.

"Our company is under constant pressure to reduce our prices." "The competitive environment we face has become fiercer than ever. Every time we have gained some small advantage in terms of higher quality, more customization, or shorter lead time, our competitors have matched us. Given the increasing pressure from our customers to re­duce their costs, the only way we have found (3) to keep from losing sales is to (5) reduce our prices. (2) This jeopardizes our future be­cause the (1,4) low margins make this business unprofitable, and keep us from investing in the technology we will need, to stay competitive in the future. We have a continuing conflict between (7E) keeping prices high enough to make a profit, and (6) meeting the customers' demands for (7D) lower prices."

Note that numbers are used here for the purpose of illustrating how the answers match with a specific question from the list above. How­ever, the procedure is much less confusing if arrows are simply drawn by hand from the specific question to the relevant answer. This would make the next step much simpler and would make it unnecessary to change a numbering method. In the example used here, the questions will be restated in a different order, together with their answers, for the purpose of adding clarity to the procedure.

Step 4 in Constructing an Evaporating Cloud

Step 4 is to identify the relevant components of the story that deal with the following selection of questions from the original list:

1.        What action have you complained about?
Answer: Reducing our prices.

2.   What is the desired, opposite action of the action above?
Answer: Keeping prices high.

3.        Why do you put up with the action above?

Answer: To keep from losing sales, to meet customers' demands.

4.  What is jeopardized by the action above?

Answer: Making the business profitable, investing in technology for the future.

5.   What objective is achieved by having both answers to questions 3
and 4 here?

Answer: To stay competitive, to be successful.

Note that these questions are ordered in a way that will fit into the framework shown in figure 4. Note that each block in figure 4 relates to specific questions that the story is intended to address. When the answers are isolated in this way, constructing the evaporating cloud becomes mostly a matter of filling in the selected answers. First the answer to question 1 immediately above is inserted into Block D of the evaporating cloud diagram. Then the answers to questions 2 through 5 are inserted into their respective blocks as shown in figure 4. Note that it is entirely permissible, and it is probably advisable to modify the wording of the statement in each block as necessary. When Step 4 is completed, each relationship should make sense when read as: "In or­der to have [A], I must have [B]," and so forth. The evaporating cloud from the example story is shown in figure 5. Note that the wording has been somewhat modified in order to fit both the logical structure of the relationships, and the ability to read it as mentioned above.

Step 5 in Constructing an Evaporating Cloud

At this point, the person analyzing the situation needs to make a deci­sion. The primary consideration is whether the evaporating cloud just built addresses a fundamentally important conflict. If this is true, then the evaporating cloud should address all the effects on the original list in a significant way. In that case, the analyst should proceed to solve the cloud by identifying the assumptions behind the relationships, and then developing at least one opposite to an assumption. This would follow the process outlined in the fourth graders' TV watching example.

However, if the cloud just completed deals with a subsidiary issue, or if there are other equally important effects that remain on the origi­nal list, then the job of building the evaporating cloud is not completed yet. In that case, the analyst should select two more effects from the original list. These effects should be the next most important or signifi­cant to the overall underlying situation at hand. For each of these two effects, the analyst needs to repeat steps 2 through 4 of constructing an evaporating cloud, as outlined above. This should result in a total of three separate evaporating cloud diagrams. The thrust behind this is that each of the three evaporating clouds is most likely to be a special case of a more fundamental and more significant situation that should be addressed. If only one of the three evaporating clouds is solved, where a more fundamental situation really needs to be dealt with, it is likely that a very helpful, but potentially superficial solution would be developed. This is a judgment call that can only be made by a person (or a group of people) intimately familiar with the situation, and ca­pable of reasoned and logical judgment on the issue. A general guide­line is that when in doubt as to the necessity of building another two evaporating clouds, do them anyway. It will not take that long, and it will provide very valuable practice. In addition, it is very likely that similarities among the clouds will be noted that may not have been obvious without the analysis done.

 

To Be Continued


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