Clues to great mysteries often lie in history. 

At The New Science of Fixing Things, we enjoy the study of history and science, learning lessons from those who have gone before us.  We try to emulate their behavior to do science, fix things, learn, teach, and help clients improve product performance, reliability and quality.   History has taught us that by sticking to the fundamentals of good science and strategy, we can solve tough problems others cannot.

There are a few important constraints history and good science give us. The first one seems hard for people to grasp at first.  Virgil states it well, thus the title to this story;  “Fortunate is he who understands the causes of things.”  Virgil teaches us to gain insight and understanding, to seek a Causal Explanation, the key to competitive advantage.

Scientific inquiry always begins by carefully phrasing a question. People often confuse this as a problem definition.  A problem definition is not good quite enough. It isn’t even a question, but a statement where a question is needed.  A problem definition can be a precursor to a question, but no substitute.

Why the emphasis on a question?

Resources and time are consumed as a function of strategy, how we ask, and how we seek answers.  This is important.  The strategy is the question!  The first steps you take are based on the question.  The question is everything! A problem definition is not a question.

Let’s go back to a bit of history and start with a question. “If I were to drop two balls from a tower, one heavier than the other, which would hit the ground first?”  What would be the answer?  It depends on whom you ask, and when. If we asked  Aristotle, he would say, “The heavy ball,” and go on to give you a reason, along with his logic.

If we ask Galileo, he would refer you to his experiment in which he dropped two balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Was it leaning then?) Of course, we know the result.  I am surprised that it took 1900 years to figure out that Aristotle was flat out wrong!  He must have been quite persuasive.

To me, it’s not dropping the balls that was so fascinating; it is what Galileo did next.  He asked the question that you need to learn to ask, and you need to learn how to go about getting the answers. He discovered that the balls hit the ground at the same time, but that led to another, even more interesting question.  Galileo asked, “What’s happening as the balls are released and fall?”

He knew the balls increased in speed and wanted to know the governing principle.  This is the clever part.  He built an inclined plane and rolled balls down the plane.  He had no way at all to measure time in small increments.  What to do?  He placed bells along the plane so that when a ball went by, it rung the bell.  He adjusted the distance between the bells so that the intervals of the rings were equal.  Of course, now he could measure linearly the distance between bells and compare them.   How clever!  And such insight! He adjusted the angle of the plane and figured out that the relationship between intervals was constant no matter the angle, and projected the relationship to balls falling from the tower.

One historical reference I read credited Galileo with then figuring out that the balls fell at 9.8m/sec2, which is asinine because it wasn’t until 200 years later when the French developed the metric system.  Galileo measured in uniform increments of time, but couldn’t quite measure in seconds. Christian Huygens figured that out with a seconds pendulum in 1658. A seconds pendulum has a period of two seconds (over and back) given a length of .99 meters.

Newton figured out the governing principle, but Galileo did the work.  How?  He asked, “What’s happening?”

Galileo gained insight and understanding.  He learned.  He taught us, and became known as the father of modern science.  Let’s pay more attention to these teachers.

A root cause is an answer to a question, a good one, given the proper circumstance. The question is, “What’s wrong?” even though even though many problem solvers are not aware they have posed it as a question. The answer might be a root cause.

Keep in mind, a causal explanation is much more than a root cause. There really isn’t much insight or understanding gained in a root cause.  We don’t gain competitive advantage from a root cause, and there are no breakthroughs. A root cause might fix something, but that’s all.  We merely, as people like to say, “Resolve the issue.”[1]

“What’s wrong?” might be a good question. Getting the answer is based upon the knowledge and experience of those most affected by the problem. Most problems get solved this way, and that’s a good thing.  It is usually fast, and often done alone.  It is why, I like to say, we need to keep old people (like me) on the payroll.  It is also important to realize that you have, in fact, asked, “What’s wrong?” as part of your investigation.

Once again, resources are consumed as a function of the strategy. If the answer to “What’s wrong?” is, “I don’t know!” then you might be wasting time, effort and money with foolish and silly nonsense by guessing with brainstorming, fishbone diagrams, and DOE’s which cost a fortune when used in a search, rather than a confirmation test.  When you ask, “What’s wrong?” and the list of candidates grows beyond two or three, you have lost the plot, and jumped onto the path of divergence and confusion.

If you take too long to solve tough problems you have a choice.  Either change the question, or pick up a copy of Dante’s Inferno, where Virgil is Dante’s guide through hell.  I would rather change the question.

There are two shortcomings of asking, “What’s wrong?”

First, it is not a convergent question.  Convergence is the essence of effective strategy for solving tough problems.  Second, “What’s wrong” is based on experience, of having seen something like it before.  Well, experience is good, but combined with a bit of arrogance, it might just stand in the way of changing the question. For novel, or unique problems, we need a system of discovery, thus, a new question and a new strategy.

Change the question and change the strategy to, “What’s happening?”  If Galileo did it, then it’s good enough for me. Then, force the product or process to reveal its physical nature, eliminating where the problem is not, and converging on where it really is.  Solving tough problems without convergence (process of elimination) is a fools game.

The people I have worked with over the last 30 years of professional problem solving are, to a person, smart.  They are clever, well-meaning and doing their best.  I feel fortunate to have worked for so many years with such good people.  I have learned a lot from our clients, clients who invent new products, develop new processes and capture markets. My goodness, they are clever!

What I often find, is smart people constrained by methods, often forced to use tools that are useless and silly. Tough problems will not be quickly solved by a problem statement, listing variables, then testing them.  It matters not the method you use to list variables, with fishbone diagrams being about the most useless and biggest time wasters.

There is a secret I should take to my grave, but I am having a moment of weakness and can’t keep it in any longer.  One client, when forced by a customer to submit a fishbone diagram as part of a project, uses the same one every time and merely changes the name at the head of the fish. These folks have better things to do with their time. They have also developed, with our help, a group of extraordinary professional problem solvers. 

I don’t like to discuss fishbone diagrams.  They belong in the ashcan of history.  You should trash them as well, if you accept that:

  1. Solving tough problems requires a process of elimination
  2. Forcing a product or process to reveal its nature is fundamental to a process of elimination.
  3. Identifying the natural divisions of a process or product is one of the first tactical moves

Can you name one process that is organized by Man, Machine, Material, Method?  I can’t.  The idea that processes are universally organized in such a way has resulted in countless hours being wasted.  Wasted hours is not the worst of it.  Failure and frustration of those using weak, but mandated tools is worse, especially when failure by those who should know better.

English poet laureate John Dryden, 1631-1700, said something similar to Virgil. “Happy the man who, studying Nature’s Laws, through known Effects can trace the secret Cause.”

Dryden spoke of Effect to Cause, which Dorain Shainin knew and promoted as a central part of effective engineering problem solving. Still, Cause to Effect diagrams linger in companies still in the dark ages of professional problem solving.

Once you change the question and the strategy, there are only a few approaches you need to learn. They are natural, based on how processes and products will reveal their nature.  All are based on a process of elimination.

For many manufacturing process problems, it is often effective to ask, does a problem lives in the:


There are a few tactics we employ to figure this out, but are beyond the scope of this article.  There are two principle points that I want to convey.

  1. You can define the line between the groups, (Input and FUNCTION) creatively, based on how the process will reveal its nature and the tactics you can use, thus eliminating where the problem is not.
  2. These two groups include everything. Nothing is left out, thus, when effectively employed in a convergent search, can quickly get started gaining insight and new knowledge.

No, this approach will not work on every project.  It will, however, often work, and is one of only four strategies you need to learn. I want to reiterate one point.  Effective problem solving NEVER starts with a list of variables. It always starts with a question, and that question must be convergent, leaving nothing out.

I was going to include one of the most powerful engineering problem solving systems: Small Multiples, and how The New Science of Fixing Things integrated it with multi-vari and created the most powerful and revealing process characterization tool, but decided it needs its own story.

Don’t worry.  I will get to it shortly!  Thanks for reading my stories!

For the many folks who continue to ask, I am doing well with the heart that was gifted to me from the anonymous donor who saved my life on September 25, 2017.  I encourage everyone to sign up as an organ donor.

[1] Machines Don’t Have Issues…Only People Do


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