Reality Check: The Elevator Problem

Regardless of your occupation or your life situation, you will always find some kind of problems. So, the ability to solve problems is a valuable skill to develop.

An early step in most problem-solving processes is “define the problem.” Now, you’d think that defining the problem would be the easy part, wouldn’t you? Yet, that’s not necessarily so.

While I was researching problem-solving, I came across a video by H. Scott Fogler of the University of Michigan. He tells an elevator story that goes something like this:

Once upon a time, several floors were added to the top of a hotel. With that expansion came new elevators.

With the new elevators came new complaints. “The elevators are too slow. We have to wait too long. I’m annoyed.”

The hotel management was aghast. They consulted architects. They consulted engineers. What to do?

One possibility was to install faster elevators…at massive expense. Another possibility was to add another elevator shaft with more elevators…at massive expense.

The expense of improvements required to speed up the elevators would essentially eliminate the benefit of having the extra floors! It was a disaster.

Then, someone tried an experiment. They mounted full-length mirrors next to the elevators.

The complaints stopped. Why?

It would appear that the real problem was not, “The elevators are too slow.” Instead, the real problem was, “Guests get annoyed while waiting for the elevator.”

Defining the problem statement differently leads to different solutions. We’re no longer trying to solve how to make the elevators faster. Instead, we’re solving, “How can we lessen our guests’ annoyance while waiting for the elevator?”

After the mirrors were installed, guest behaviour changed. People checked their appearance in the mirror, fiddled with their hair, tucked in their shirts, and stood up straighter, all while waiting for the elevator. Guests were waiting the same length of time as before, but now they had a different perception of that time.

According to Fogler, a big “problem” in problem solving is mistaking a perceived problem for the real problem. If you make that error, you can easily end up putting all of your creative, innovative energy into solving the wrong problem.

So, it’s important to figure out whether the perceived problem is, indeed, the real problem. One way to start is to ask, “What outcome do I want?”

Demanding faster elevators as the wanted outcome for the hotel leads to a disruptive, expensive solution.

However, if what’s wanted is happy, satisfied guests, then a reasonable next question is, “Why are guests unhappy now?” Then, the real problem can be uncovered: “People are annoyed about waiting for the elevators.”

Where else might we find mismatches between real problems and perceived problems? Here are a few examples:

Perceived problem: “We don’t have enough time together.” Real problem: “I want a better relationship with my children.”

Perceived problem: “My boss is always on my case.” Real problem: “I want a pleasant work environment.”

Perceived problem: “I need to make more money.” Real problem: “I want to feel more secure.”

It’s difficult to find effective solutions when you are chasing the wrong problem, so it’s worth taking time to become clear on the real problem (or your real “want”) before jumping to a solution.

How do you approach problem-solving?

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