Not long ago, I heard from a potential new client, asking how The New Science of Fixing Things might help with an important product performance problem.  It was summertime in the beautiful mountains of the western United States where they were located.  I was hoping to get the job and spend a few extra days exploring.  Sadly, I heard nothing back.  Maybe it was because I said I had never seen the product they made. We have been working with clients around the world for over 25 years now.  Although never having seen the product before was discouraging to them, it hardly mattered to me.  The laws of physics and the Essence of Strategy are universal. Not having heard from them, I assumed they had figured it out. I was wrong.

The phone rang a couple of weeks ago, just before Christmas.  They needed help right away.  Of course, it was cold and snowy this time.  I asked if I could come in January, as they had called just before Christmas.  “No.  We are in trouble with our customer.”  A couple of days later, I packed my bags, put on long pants and real shoes, no shorts and sandals, leaving sunny Naples, Florida for the mountains and snow out West.

In just a few days, I was home by the pool, problem solved. No, I was not drinking pina coladas with a paper umbrella.  I only drink water, but it would put a nice ring to the story.  However, I was wearing a straw hat. It only took a few days, and I enjoyed myself.  I was working with bright and clever people who were fascinated by what we were able to accomplish in such a short time.

Unusual?  No.  Are we smarter than everyone else?  No.  Just ask my ex-wife, who once said, “How can a man as smart as you be so stupid sometimes?”

I shrugged, and replied, “Sometimes, I wonder the same thing.”  I will leave out what brought that on, but I am proud say that we are best of friends today.

Last spring, a company that makes another product I had never seen before was asked to hire us by their customer who was annoyed with the lack of progress figuring out a problem with a new product that was close to holding up the delivery of a vehicle. The product was being made in China, but the inventors were in Boston.  They asked me to come up for a visit in Boston.

I have had hundreds of these visits over the years, and to this day, they are still intimidating.  I walked into the presidents’ corner office.  There were a half dozen people who introduced themselves as Dr. A, Dr. B, Dr. C, and Drs. X, Y and Z.  Three were from MIT. “Hi.  My name is John.”

If we were all in school together, I suppose I would come in dead last in class if I were lucky enough to keep up with them.  I was fascinated by the products they had invented, and the science that gave them a strategic edge. They really are brilliant.

The first question was, “What makes you think you can help us?”  What was left out, but implied, was, “You aren’t as smart as we are.  What are you bringing to the party?”

As soon as they showed me what they had been doing for the past year, my fear waned, and I gained confidence.  I saw a way to get started and developed the opening move. They had been wasting time with bad strategy, and I saw it!  Perhaps too smart by half? I didn’t say so.  Why should I? These were smart people, but within an hour, they began to see why they were off track, and wasting time they didn’t have.  They were gentlemen about it, not the slightest bit defensive.  They were confident in themselves, and open to a better way.  I suppose that’s why they were able to work together to invent such clever products. They were easy to work with, and supported me, because they saw that our approach made sense.

I left the Boston office and arrived a few days in China. At the end of the first week, we had figured out what was wrong.

Solving tough problems really has little to do with problem solving tools, although there are a lot of people out there selling those tools like snake oil.  People in quality departments are often interested in the “tools” you use, and want to know if we follow some prescribed set of tools.  If you admire a painting, do you care about the brushes?

David Hartshorne and I have been working together since 1991, I think.  I asked him to review this paper, and he replied with the following. He asked me to edit and  put it into my own style, and include it. It is beautifully written, and captures years of thought. I can’t find a single word to change.  The style is all his.

“Many people have a natural tendency to complicate things; wasting time and effort on unimportant things; cluttering minds, days, and filling the time of others with fruitless activity; chasing lists rather than focusing, discerning and inquiring. When this approach meets the complexity of engineering, the result is confusion and unsound actions. It’s no wonder that engineers and managers attempt to alleviate the resultant muddle with step-by-step guides and systems for achieving goals. Because people also love rules and sound bites, they engage with prescribed sets of rules, principles and procedures. We often collectively call these systems tools, and we love to collect such soft tools, especially when they are popular with others.


Following a system, or tool set of rules, principles, and procedures entices and seduces. Faith and optimism know no bounds. The problem is that such tools can rapidly take over as major subjects in themselves, restricting free thought and creativity, leading to futile or ineffective activity, consuming precious time and lost sight of the goal. No soft tool, rule, principle or procedure should be accepted unless it is either unavoidable or materially helpful to your goal. You really ought to reject and ignore all others, keeping what you accept to a minimum. By doing this, you will escape all manner of distractions and dead ends. When presented with a new tool, rule, principle or procedure, carefully consider its origin. Is it a natural law of nature, science, or mathematics, or is it man-made? If the latter, is it your own self-imposed rule, or one that others seek to bind you with? In engineering, there are certain natural laws that it pays to understand, as they can work powerfully in your favour or against you, and they can’t be ignored.

You should aim to develop the smallest possible kit of the most useful multipurpose tools and rules. If you carry around a shedload of them, it is hard to remember what you have or to find the ones you want. Travel light!

-David Hartshorne


Once people are struck by the results of what we do, they are surprised. Tools?  It is the results we should care about. Some are surprised by the simplicity of our work, as it does not follow a prescribed set of procedures, but rather a set of simple constraints. Sure, we teach a few tools. Generally, we show you how to more effectively apply what you already know, for purposes of discovery, and gaining new knowledge. But tools, as David so beautifully said, are not the center of what we do.  Tools are in support of good strategy.  Strategy is the essence of professional problem solving.  It is why ordinary engineers can accomplish extraordinary things in the world of problem solving.  Strategy is key — not another arrow in your quiver of tools. And strategy is based upon effective questions designed to eliminate what doesn’t matter, to converge and discover.

Good strategy centers on just a few principles and constraints, and only a few, that can turn tough problems into simple ones. The job of a good engineering problem solver is to constrain a project to those few concepts, execute effectively, and keeping things simple where opportunities for confusion abound!

The worst and most useless problem-solving tools I have ever seen are brainstorming and fishbone diagrams.  These belong in the ash can of history. I have read on LinkedIn debates about which fishbone categories to include on this wretched device, by those claiming to have professional belts and certifications. OK, perhaps brainstorming has its place, but certainly not in professional problem solving. These so-called tools violate every principle of convergence, constraint, and simplicity. By their very nature, nothing new can be discovered, as they start with what you THINK you know.

How in the world did we ever get to the point where brilliant scientists and engineers have fallen for the hoax of such nonsense? Problem solving is constrained by just two things:

  1. How the world of making things is organized;
  2. How machines work in accordance with physical law.

That gets us to a few principles we have to keep in mind.  It’s a short list.  It has to be, or I won’t remember.

  1. Problem solving not based on the principle of convergence is a fool’s game
  2. Your job is not to solve the problem. It is to learn one thing every day about the physics of function and failed function. Remember, you cannot guess based upon what you already know.  Discovery is the key!
  3. Strategy is based on asking sound questions (there are only Three Good Questions[1]) that are consistent with the ability to execute, discover, and converge.
  4. There are only four essential problem-solving tools.

Long training programs and seminars are not necessary.  A series of seminars and certifications often end up as the central focus of a measure of success, with annual targets for certifications a goal.

How do smart people get so confused, and so far off track? If you are miserably confused, was it because you attempted to use existing knowledge in some way, making candidate lists of known variables?

Think for a moment. Tough problems are solved by discovering new knowledge. If the starting point is existing knowledge, and the process you use is limited to what you already know, you will become discouraged and fail miserably!  Discovery is fun. (Isn’t that really the point?)

If the knowledge you need is missing, or the void between symptom and cause is so big, it gets filled with practically every bit of loosely related knowledge folks have. In each case, it tends to lead to pseudo-science: tests, experiments, inspections and audits that have the appearance of being professional, accurate and scientific, but are in fact entirely spurious… backed up by statistics to boot! And presented in PowerPoint.

Workshops on strategy, not seminars, are the way to progress.  TNSFT workshops center on projects; projects pay the freight.  Projects finished are a sign of a job well done! As Juran said, “Improvement takes place project by project and in no other way.”  Project based workshops are fun and fast, with a bit of time to teach a few principles, the four essential tools, pose a good convergent question, then get the answer, which dictates the formation of the next question. It’s the strategy that matters.

The project in China was an example where frustration was abundant.  Tools, rather than strategy, were once again the game at hand.  Tools not centered in physical law had not been questioned, but were deployed by dogmatic forces, often forced by customers onto suppliers, and programs which became more powerful than the brilliance of the people who had invented the technology upon which the company thrives.

A large team had been formed, although small ones are better. Long lists were developed to make sure everything one could think of was stable, without an understanding of the failure. Experiments had been run; expensive experiments, to probe, rather than to confirm, with predictable results; nothing proved significant in the search.

Now, don’t be critical of these good folks. They are brilliant people, trained and constrained by a set of probabilistic principles in a deterministic world.  As David alluded, The New Science of Fixing Things understands the role of probabilistic and structural decomposition; a supplement to Functional Decomposition, centered on asking, “What’s happening?”

Structural decomposition is useful to isolate a problem, to eliminate where it isn’t, to narrow the search. This reminds me of Wee Willy Keeler, the Hall of Fame baseball player from the 1890’s who said, “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.”  We go where they are.

The project in China involved something similar to a coating process, so I will call it coating for simplicity in the rest of this story. The effort to the point where I arrived was centered on improving coating, with long lists of variables, process changes, environmental improvements, including, of course, humidity.

I needed a good starting question.

Suppose I made a statement as follows;

Either the coating was,

  1. properly applied, and then knocked off; or
  2. not properly applied.

Only one can be true.

That statement includes every possible variable without naming a single one. Without talking about variables, we have developed a strategic statement of truth, which, once executed, has the ability to;

  1. Eliminate and converge
  2. Learn one thing, gain new knowledge
  3. Based on what we now know, ask the next good question.

Isolation is a tool to get the answer to The Question. What was left out? Nothing. Have a look at the following diagram, a representation of the model for Isolation, one of the four strategies.


Coating can be nicely included in the Input, and the rest of the manufacturing process can be conveniently included in Function. The process always will reveal the truth, if you are clever enough to force an answer.

How the question was asked and answered in this case doesn’t matter.  All you need to know is that it was fast and eliminated where all the effort was being applied.  These bright folks saw the error of their ways, were perfectly capable to finish without my help once on the right path but were kind enough to allow me to participate to the conclusion.

Good strategy is based on the question which is posed right at the beginning. The question must be all inclusive of every possibility at the start, and then these must be progressively eliminated. This approach is always faster, as well as technically sound…every time!

“An average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.”

Leonardo daVinci

John Allen

Naples, Florida

January, 2019

[1] Three Good Questions, and One Not so Good