The Problem Paradox: How Leaders Make Problem Solving Too Difficult

30.04.24 10:59 PM By Chuck Orzechowski

Learn how you, as a leader, can adopt a simple approach to 
​solve any type of problem, whether simple or complex.

As leaders, we are expected to solve problems. Big problems. And sometimes, we get those pesky little problems too. Whether big or small, these problems are often handed to us soon after we step (or are dragged) into our first leadership role. For some of us, this could have occurred as early as our teenage years when given a supervisory position in an after-school job. We were thrown into the fire, armed only with our best English Lit or Geometry problem-solving skills which, for the record, are not the skills you need to solve an employee issue on the fry line!

So, very early on in our “careers”, we might face issues with little knowledge of the problem-solving process other than our own experience. The process, up to this point, is a little bit like the diagram below. When encountering a problem for the first time, we enter into the maze, bounce around trying out a variety of approaches until something sticks and we exit. Problem solved!


Then, when a new problem arises, we look for a repeatable pattern. We say to ourselves, "Is this problem similar to one I’ve encountered before?" If so, jackpot! We coolly apply the same solution. Like a good shampoo, we lather, rinse & repeat…

Another thing that happens in our brains, besides problem pattern recognition, is that we start to short-circuit our thinking by generating solutions without fully understanding the problem. Our organizations might even reward this behavior as being “quick, decisive…always has good answers or solutions”. You know - management material!

And so it continues. Organizational behavior rewards leaders with bigger and more complex problems as you “climb the ladder”. We are conditioned to think and behave this way.

Now, I am not arguing that pattern recognition and experience have no role in problem solving. They absolutely do. I would argue, however, that we begin to adopt a mindset that tells us simple problems have simple solutions and complex problems have complex solutions. It is this very mindset, I believe, that can put us at a significant disadvantage. 

Take these examples of two very different problems:

Problem A: You are informed that an employee on your production line has been producing low-quality parts for the first half of his                         shift.

Problem B: Customers from all over the country have complained about your rubber seal failing during service. The seal is                         delaminating along a metal insert that is meant to grip onto a pipe, forming a bond. This delamination has                                                  reduced contact pressure by 50%. Ultimately, the seal has or will fail, causing thousands of dollars of damage to                         customers’ facilities.

Question: Which is the more complex problem?

Problem B, of course. Right? And which is the simpler problem to solve? Problem A?

Well, both are actual problems that I experienced early in my career.

Given Problem A, I was instructed that I needed to go and “have a word” with the employee producing the low-quality parts. I was to have him read the work instructions then give him a "warning". If there were any additional problems, I would have to increase the disciplinary measure.

Problem B turned into a Six Sigma Black Belt project which included an exhaustive review of returned service-failure parts, a complete measurement systems analysis and multi-factorial, Plackett-Burman experimental design trials across three shifts of molding equipment. All told, this was a six-month project with nearly $50,000 spent in time and labor to wrap our arms around the problem.

Now that I have set the stage (and perhaps showed my hand…), which problem was solved with a simple solution?

Problem B!

You see, Problem A involved an employee who had just left the hospital after spending all day with a dying parent. He had rushed into work, his mind frazzled. He hadn't told anyone; he'd simply gotten to work. But the problem didn't end there. Unbeknownst to anyone, the employee from the previous shift had failed to set up the machine properly for the upcoming shift. The employee making the low-quality parts had assumed the machine was ready to run, just as it always had been. Added to that, the quality inspector had not made it to the employee's machine to inspect parts at start-up, so the employee had run half the shift before they caught the problem. It hadn’t helped that, during this particular week, the company had been pressuring everyone to increase output. So many moving pieces here! Not to mention an employee who then felt even worse. Now that is a complex problem to fix.

The solution to Problem B? Simple. A blasting machine had not received the required maintenance it had needed - for years! In fact, the operator had complained to his supervisor that something wasn’t right. He'd noticed the metal finish wasn’t as rough as it had once been (and was supposed to be). However, after a few years, he had stopped complaining. Ultimately, the lack of maintenance had begun to slowly affect the quality of the product. 

The solution: simple maintenance that required about $500 worth of repair parts and a couple hours of downtime. The problems immediately went away. No more service failures.

Thanks to that Black Belt project years ago, I now follow a simple rule I call The Problem Paradox:

                                                            If confronted with a “complex problem”, look for the simple solution.

                                                            If confronted with a “simple problem”, prepare for a complex solution.


My rule runs counter to all we’ve been taught and conditioned to expect. In fact, if I were to admit it, the problems don’t actually become more difficult as we climb the ladder. At least, they don't have to be. As long as we develop a fundamental problem-solving approach, apply some rules and use our past experiences to guide us into new ways of thinking, problems can actually become easier to solve!

As Albert Einstein famously said:

                                        “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking 

                                        about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Here's a simple approach to solving the most complex (and simple) problems:

First (and also the number one rule of problem solving): Understand the problem BEFORE attempting to solve it. 

Some effective tools to use:

        a.) Ask questions. When did it first happen? What are some other factors that might be contributing to the problem? Who’s         involved in the problem? What is the effect of the problem? At COO Forum, we use a tool called the COO Arena™ process.         This first step is called “Framing the Issue".

        b.) Apply the 5 Why question techniqueThis is another tool that can help you to understand a problem’s “root cause".

        c.) Look internally. If the problem involves a communication or behavioral issue with another person (employee, peer, manager             or other) ask, “How might I be contributing to the problem?” Sometimes a problem might simply be a misperception and                       not accurate at all.

        d.) Create a visual. Sometimes visually mapping the process or sketching the problem using tools such as a Mind Map or a                   Fishbone Diagram triggers a solution.

Second, apply the “Eat the Elephant One Bite at a Time” approach. In other words, break down a larger problem into smaller, “bite-sized” pieces. This approach helps us to mentally wrap our heads around a problem by simplifying it. In reality, even the most complex problems, when broken down, will yield opportunities for taking some level of action, resulting in progress.


Third, seek out different viewpoints. This may seem like an obvious thing to do. However, as busy leaders, we often find ourselves feeling the need for quick solutions and avoid asking for help. Sometimes our own experiences can even create blind spots that prevent us from seeing a problem clearly.

Finally, continue to learn new techniques for problem solving. There are a wide variety of approaches that we can master. New advances in technology allow for greater data analysis, visualization and even AI-generated solutions. Stay current and practice. And remember, do not be fooled by either complexity or simplicity. 

Remember this: a good problem always fights back!