Monday, September 28, 2009

Know your data

Often we gather data to aid in solving a problem we encounter. One trap that you can fall into is that the data is not exactly what you think it is. For example, you might be taking pressure readings from a process line to decide whether a filter is plugged. The pressure readings may be normal leading you to believe that the filter is not plugged and in satisfactory condition. However, if the pressure gauge is upstream of the filter, then the data is misleading you. The filter may be plugged but the pressure gauge location is misleading you.

This is particularly a problem if you don't have good change control on your equipment. The diagram you are working on may not reflect reality. It is always a good idea to go look at what you're working on, both the help you visualize the process and to make sure things are as you think they are. The biggest danger to problem solving is thinking you can sit back in your office and just think through the problem.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Active Exploration

When I was in school I was listening to a talk about a topic (or so I thought) unrelated to my research. The speaker mentioned in passing that they were adding hydrogen to the helium microwave plasma. That caught my attention as I realized that it may be suitable for the problems I was having getting my project on RF ICPs to work. With a little bit of literature searching I was able to find much work from the light bulb industry that addressed the problem that I was having. Imagine my surprise that my "research" problem had already been encountered (in a somewhat different form) in another industry.

You should always be aware of potential solutions to problems you might encounter in unexpected places. In "Made to Stick" the authors talk about the power of spotting a good story that supports what you want to communicate. Unless you are actively looking for such an story, you may miss it when you come across it. Likewise problem solutions may elude you unless you have the problem(s) in mind and you are actively looking for solutions.

Don't neglect this key ingredient of problem solving.

Getting your solution to Stick

In their book "Made to Stick" Chip and Dan Heath make the following statement (slightly edited) in the Epilogue.

"[Problem solving] has two stages: the Answer stage and the Telling Others stage. In the Answer stage, you use your expertise to arrive at the [solution] you want to share. [...]
Here's the rub: The same factors that worked to your advantage in the Answer stage will backfire on you during the Telling Others stage"

After solving a problem, we know a lot about it. The problem is, the people who we are communicating the solution to, don't know nearly as much. This is where the "Curse of Knowledge" comes in. What we already know, we have to get across to others. The problem is that what we think is important may not matter unless you can get others to buy in to your solution. The book provides the recipe for SUCCESs. is their website.