…may seem like a good thing. After all, the more solutions we have to any particular problem, the more likely we are to solve it right? In actual practice when we are properly constrained we are more likely to spend our time and resources more effectively in solving problems. An infinite number of solutions includes the bad ones, the ones that take spend our resources too freely, the ones that don’t consider risks and unintended consequences, and the ones that address symptoms but do not address the root causes.
As this quote placed mysteriously on the inside of a plastic bottle of green tea reminds us:
“An undefined problem has an infinite number of solutions.”
– Robert A. Humphrey
The discipline of deliberate and practical problem solving requires that we first clarify the problem, break the problem down into any smaller and discrete sub-problems, set agreed targets and conduct root causes analysis before we generate countermeasures. This is all done in the Plan phase of the PDCA cycle. We must follow the lean virtue to plan slowly and thoroughly, and only then act with decisive speed. The classic brainstorm can be the opposite of this, generating many good ideas through intuition and induction, but possibly many other ideas based on misunderstanding, prejudice or the ill effects of something you had for breakfast.
While it is recommended that we explore many countermeasures simultaneously, for any root cause there can only be one countermeasure that is simplest and most effective. The more time we spend in defining a problem, the less time we spend in testing unworthy ideas. This requires faith and patience. Understanding why we don’t to do this is an enduring topic of fascination for me.