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When Smart People Are A Nuisance

We all like smart people, right?

The purpose of this article is to share a word of caution when undertaking new continuous improvement projects; sometimes the situation to be improved can be made artificially complex. Many smart people like complicated things. However, complicated problems and complicated solutions can make life unnecessarily difficult.

When a situation is difficult to manage and needs to be improved you can often find yourself looking for solutions that will take every last detail into account and provide a robust solution. What if you don’t need to undertake all of these details? What if they are symptoms of something else?

If you find yourself in this position then it might be a good time to undertake some root cause analysis, to find out what is real and what is a knock on effect from some other activity. Root cause analysis can be very simple to undertake and one of the most popular options is ‘5 Why’. This approach is widely used to dig past the symptoms of a problem with a carefully chosen ‘why?’ question. Don’t just use the question ‘why?’ on its own, this doesn’t provide the necessary guidance for the people asking the question (and can become quite irritating).

The purpose of digging under the skin of a problem is that there is usually some kind of ongoing issue that needs to be resolved. By probing further you often arrive at a really simple (and obvious) insight that is in your control to resolve. This flash of the blindingly obvious is, however, only obvious once you do the necessary digging. The point of root cause analysis is to prevent you from accepting the first solution and instead help you to find out what is really going on, and more importantly, what you can do to change the situation.

After you have this level of clarity you can then go about crafting an improvement project which will address the right problems, and give you the correct results. Solutions for our problems may need to be complicated. They could also be an excuse not to stop, stand back and look at what you are doing and look at the bigger picture. If you find yourself in this situation then I recommend considering the following:

  • Fully define the problem you are trying to solve. By defining a problem accurately you can often devise a simple solution in its own right. This step alone is often glazed over and never given the true amount of time it deserves. Spend more time on this step if your projects are too complex.
  • Undertake some root cause analysis if the defined problem does not give you a beautiful yet simple solution. Try ‘5 Why’ or similar techniques to help you get to the bottom of the problem.
  • Generate an improvement plan to address your real issues.
  • Review the improvement plan, challenging each step with the question ‘what would give me a better result for less effort and cost?’ Revise the plan to reduce the amount of resources and effort the plan currently requires. You may need to leave this step over a period of hours, or days, to get your mind to give you some really good answers.
  • Take action and review the results.

I hope that if your projects seem too complicated or difficult that you will try the above. I really like smart people, but I am also aware that many of them like to jump into a problem and develop novel, complicated, long winded solutions. Stepping back might seem like taking time that you don’t have available. In most cases where I have recommended this approach businesses have saved themselves a lot more time and effort than if they just pushed ahead with the original solution. Their solutions were better too, so please take a time out if you are feeling that your projects are too complicated and try this approach.


Giles Johnston
Author of 'Business Process Re-Engineering', a practical plan to improve business performance.