Problems managing fixing and solving

In every era, each culture defines itself in terms of the heroes it admires. That, in turn, determines the mindset and aspirations of the generation whose values are formed during that time. For past generations explorers, military men, inventors, financiers, and statesmen have filled the role of hero. I believe that our time is the age of the manager. The MBA degree, a credential that qualifies one to administer by analysing and manipulating financial aggregates, has become the most prized ticket to advancement in the United States. The values managers regard most highly: competence, professionalism, punctuality, and communication skills have been enshrined as the path to success and adopted by millions.

The cult of management, for that is what it is, pervades the culture which is its host. In time, it will be seen to be as naive as the ephemeral enthusiasms that preceded and will, undoubtedly, supplant it in due course. But now, at the height of its hold, it's important to distinguish managing a problem from fixing it, for these are very different acts: one is a process, the other an event. Solving a problem often requires a bit of both.

Managing problems

"Management must manage" was the motto of Harold Geneen, who built ITT from an obscure international telephone company into the prototype of the multinational conglomerate. What Geneen meant by this is that the art of the manager is coming to terms with whatever situations develop in the course of running a business and choosing the course of action that makes the best of each.

The world of the manager is one of problems and opportunities. Problems are to be managed; one must understand the nature of the problem, amass resources adequate to deal with it, and "work the problem" on an ongoing basis. Opportunities are merely problems that promise to pay off after sufficient work.

Managers are not schooled in radical change. The elimination of entire industries and their replacement with others, the obsolescence of established products in periods measured in months, the consequences of continued exponential growth in technology are all foreign to the manager. Presented with a problem, an expert manager can quickly grasp its essence and begin to formulate a plan to manage the problem on an ongoing basis.

But what if the problem can be fixed? This is not the domain of the manager.

Fixing problems

Engineers, derided as "nerds" and "techies" in the age of management, are taught not to manage problems but to fix them. Faced with a problem, an engineer strives to determine its cause and find ways to make the problem go away, once and for all.

An engineer believes most problems have solutions. A solution might not be achievable in the short term, but he's sure somewhere, somehow, inside every problem there lurks a solution. The engineer isn't interested in building an organisation to cope with the problem. Instead, the engineer studies the problem in the hope of finding its root cause. Once that's known, a remedy may become apparent which eliminates the need to manage the problem, which no longer exists.

Most of the technological achievements of the modern world are built on billions of little fixes to billions of little problems, found through this process of engineering. And yet the engineer's faith in fixes often blinds him to the fact that many problems, especially those involving people, don't have the kind of complete, permanent solutions he seeks.

Solving problems

Many difficult and complicated problems require a combination of the skills of management and the insights of engineering. Yet often, the difficulty managers and engineers have in understanding each other's view of the world thwarts the melding of their skills to truly solve a problem. In isolation, a manager can feel rewarded watching the organisation he created to "work the problem" grow larger and more important. Reward-ingly occupied too, is the engineer who finds "fix" after "fix," each revealing another aspect of the problem that requires yet another fix. Neither realises, in their absorption in doing what they love, that the problem is still there and continues to cause difficulties.

The development of the U.S. telephone network in the twentieth century provides an excellent example of how management and engineering can, together, solve problems. In the year 1900 there were about a million telephones in the country. By 1985 more than 135 million were installed. Building a system to connect every residence and business across a continent, providing service so reliable it becomes taken for granted, is one of the most outstanding management achievements of all time. Yet it never could have happened without continuing engineering developments to surmount obstacles which otherwise would have curtailed its growth: problems no amount of management, however competent, could have ameliorated alone.

Consider: in 1902 every thousand telephones required 22 operators. The Bell System employed 30,000 operators then, making connections among the 1.3 million telephones that existed. Had this ratio remained constant, the dream of a telephone in every house, on every desk in every business, would have remained only a dream for it would have required, by 1985, three million operators plugging and unplugging cables just to keep the phones working. About 3% of the entire labour force would be telephone operators. Even if that many could somehow be hired and trained, the salary costs would price phone service out of reach of most people.

No amount of management could overcome this limitation. But a series of incremental engineering fixes, starting with automated switchboards for human operators, then direct dial telephones, and finally direct worldwide dialing reduced the demand for operators to a level where universal telephone service became a reality. The managers wisely realised they needed an engineering fix, funded the search for one, and when it was found, managed the transition to the new system and its ongoing operation thereafter.

The engineers, likewise, realised that while they could fix a large part of the problem, they couldn't do it all. Had they sought to eliminate operators entirely, they would never have found a workable system. Instead, they automated what they could and relied on a well-managed organisation of human beings to handle the balance. Indeed, the number of operators employed by the Bell System has grown steadily over the years, reach ing 160,000 by 1970. But the engineering fixes had, through time, reduced the requirement from 22 operators per thousand phones to about 1.7.

Weight: what's the connection?

Management in isolation struggles with constraints that can frequently be eliminated. Engineering in isolation seeks permanent fixes which sometimes don't exist and, even when found, often require an ongoing effort to put into place and maintain. Each needs the other to truly solve a problem. So it is with controlling your weight. First, you must fix the problem of not knowing when and how much to eat. As long as you lack that essential information, you'll never get anywhere. Then, you have to use that information to permanently manage your weight.

Diet books reflect the division between engineers and managers. When they focus on a "magic diet," they're seeking a quick fix. When they preach about "changing your whole lifestyle," they're counseling endless coping with a broken system. This book presents an engineering fix to the underlying problem, then builds a management program upon it to truly solve the problem of being overweight.

Weight Loss All Star

Weight Loss All Star

Are you looking to lose weight or even just tone up? What is stopping you from having the body you want and help you feel great at the same time? I created Weight Loss All-Star for all those wanting to lose weight, and keep the weight off. I know how hard it is to do diets and stick with them, and get the motivation to get up and exercise.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment