We often find ourselves stuck with trying to solve a problem situation. The following two anecdotes are given as examples of focusing on the solution versus focusing on the problem. The first story is a popular joke and gets quoted as an example of creative thinking. The second one is also interesting.
Difference between Focusing on Problems and Focusing on Solutions
Case 1: When NASA began the launch of astronauts into space, they found out that the pens wouldn't work at zero gravity (ink won't flow down to the writing surface). To solve this problem, it took them one decade and $12 million. They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, in practically any surface including crystal and in a temperature range from below freezing to over 300 degrees C.
And what did the Russians do? They used a pencil.
Case 2: One of the most memorable case studies on Japanese management was the case of the empty soapbox, which happened in one of Japan's biggest cosmetics companies. The company received a complaint that a consumer had bought a soapbox that was empty. Immediately the authorities isolated the problem to the assembly line, which transported all the packaged boxes of soap to the delivery department. For some reason, one soapbox went through the assembly line empty. Management asked its engineers to solve the problem.
Post-haste, the engineers worked hard to devise an X-ray machine with high-resolution monitors manned by two people to watch all the soapboxes that passed through the line to make sure they were not empty. No doubt, they worked hard and they worked fast but they spent a whoopee amount to do so.
But when a rank-and-file employee in a small company was posed the same problem, he did not get into complications of X-rays etc., but
instead came out with another solution. He bought a strong industrial electric fan and pointed it at the assembly line. He switched the fan on, and as each soapbox passed the fan, it simply blew the empty boxes out of the line.
It is a good habit to ask before deciding on a solution if we have identified the end objective and if that is being met.
I often encounter this situation: I am asked to review something, I say, "Maybe we could look at doing it this way to avoid such-and-such problem." The response I get is, "I proposed that way because I did not know such-and-such." And sometimes the defensiveness is more aggressive of the form, "Why cannot we stick with that way?" The effort should be on evaluating whether a better solution has been found in terms of the objective.
In specific terms, the following questions are more important: (i) Whether such-and-such problem is really a problem (ii) How likely is it to occur (iii) Whether this way will reduce it compared to that way (iv) Is there a third better way to prevent its occurrence.
Why something was proposed and something else was not proposed in the first instance is not relevant to the end objective. At best it can be useful to analyze as a post-facto appraisal.