Solving Problem Solving: Meta Skills For Problem Solving

21 Jun

Each problem is new in different ways. And mechanically applying specialized tools often doesn’t take you far. So beyond specialized tools, you need meta-skills.

The top meta-skill is learning. Immersing yourself in the area you are thinking about will help you solve problems better and quicker. Learning more broadly helps as well—it enables you to connect dots arrayed in unusual patterns.

Only second to learning is writing. Writing works because it is an excellent tool for thinking. Humans have limited memories, finite processing capacity, are overconfident, and are subject to ‘passions’ of the moment that occlude thinking. Writing reduces the malefic effects of these deficiencies.

By incrementally writing things down, you no longer have to store everything in the brain. Having a written copy also means that you can repeatedly go over the contents, which makes focusing on each of the points easier. But having something written also means you can `scan’ more quickly. Writing down, thus, also allows you to mix and match and form new combinations more easily.

Just as writing overcomes some of the limitations of our memory, it also improves our computational power. Writing allows us to overcome finite processing capacity by spreading the computation over time—run Intel 8088 for a long time, and you can solve reasonably complex problems.

Not all writing, however, will reduce overconfidence or overcome fuzzy thinking. For that, you need to write with the aim of genuine understanding and have enough humility, skepticism, motivation, and patience to see what you don’t know, learn what you don’t know, and apply what you have learned.

To make the most of writing, spread the writing over time. By distancing yourself from `passions’ of the moment—egoism, being enamored with an idea, etc.—you can see more clearly. So spread writing over time to see your words with a ‘fresh pair of eyes.’

The third meta-skill is talking. Like writing is not transcribing, talking is not recitation. If you don’t speak, some things will remain unthought. So speak to people. And there is no better set of people to talk to than a diverse set of others, people who challenge your implicit assumptions and give you new ways to think about a problem.

There are tricks to making discussions more productive. The first is separating discussions of problems from solutions and separating discussions about alternate solutions from discussions about which solution is better. There are compelling reasons behind the suggestion. If you kludge discussions of problems with solutions, people are liable to confuse unworkable solutions with problems. The second is getting opinions from the least powerful first—they are liable to defer to the more powerful. The third is keeping the tenor of discussion as ”intellectual pursuit of truth,” where getting it right is the only aim.

The fouth meta-skill, implicit in the third meta-skill but a separate skill, is relying on others. How we overcome our limitations is by relying on others. Knowing how to ask for help is an important skill. Find ways to get help—ask people to read what you have written, offer comments, ask them why you are wrong, how they would solve the problem, point you to literature, other people, etc.

Operating Efficiently: Thumb Rules for Increasing Operational Efficiency

5 Aug

ABC ships cereal to people. ABC has a large operations team that handles customer complaints, e.g., “I got the wrong kind of cereal,” “the cereal was too old,” “the cereal arrived too late,” etc., and custom requests, e.g., “I would like seventy custom boxes shipped to a company retreat”, “I would like the delivery date to be changed,” etc. ABC is interested in providing customer service at a lower cost. What are its options? Here are some thumb rules:

  1. Prevent Work: 
    1. Prevent complaints from arising. Prevention will cost money so it is tempting to think of it as a trade-off. In the long term, prevention is generally financially beneficial.  
    2. Self-Serve: Build tools that allow customers to self-serve. It can be a win-win.
  2. Convert Externalities to Internalities: What special favors are customers asking that are not part of the price? For instance, are customers contacting you for changing delivery dates? Are you charging them for such changes? Bottom line: do not provide services that people are not willing to pay for.
  3. Staff Appropriately
    1. Forecast different kinds of work (by different work we mean work for which you pay different amounts of money and need to hire different people or train differently), come up with ideal shifts, and incentives for staying longer or going home sooner when reality doesn’t match up to reality. If you can forecast months in advance, it can inform your hiring or ‘right-sizing’ plans.
    2. Reduce Specialization: One thing that gets in the way of reducing staffing in having a lot of specialization. 
    3. Smooth Work by Separating Urgent from Non-Urgent Work: Say that a lot of work arrives in a narrow window. Not all of it is urgent. Build tools like ‘call me back’ to deal with non-essential work.  
    4. Simplify Work: Make sure that you don’t need to train people a lot to do the work.
  4. Make People More Efficient
    1. Train: Train people so that they can get more done per unit of time.
    2. Incentivize: Make sure workers and managers are optimally incentivized.
    3. Better Tools and Processes: Invest in tools and processes that help people do the job quicker. For instance, building tools that allow you to seamlessly transfer work between shifts by conveying all the relevant info. 
    4. Prioritize Work: For the same resources, one way to provide better quality is to prioritize work correctly.
  5. Hire more efficient people and fire inefficient people.
  6. Reduce Work: Automate work that can be automated. It includes semi-automation: automating portions of work.