Creative Problem Solving

Consider these things:

  • Why do we chase results while solving problems?
  • What do we do to mitigate unforeseen risks?
  • Which methods do we adopt to fix the complications?

It isn’t easy to figure out right answers for all these questions. For, while chasing results, we are often obsessed with getting them asap.

So, what’s the way out?

Let’s understand using the example of a popular puzzle — Sudoku.

Sudoku is a simple mind bending puzzle in which the numbers 1 to 9 are uniquely arranged in a 9 X 9 square grid such that they don’t repeat across either each one of the 9 rows or columns. So, the result we want is to fill out the 9 X 9 grid.

Secondly, there’re sub-grids of 3 X 3 squares each within the 9 X 9 main grid which too would contain unique numbers 1 to 9 without repetition. This automatically happens as one starts filling the empty cells, albeit when its solved correctly.

Thus we will have several unique sets of numbers 1 to 9 filled in such a way that each one of the 3 X 3 sub-grids as well as individual rows and columns contain them without any repetition!

Simple as it sounds, the beauty of this puzzle is in its visual clarity. One can quickly gauze how hard the puzzle is just by the already filled in cells. Thus, the more the empty cells, the harder the puzzle. The clues are in the 3 X 3 sub-grids. We’ll see how this immensely helps in solving it down the line.

The process to get started with solving the puzzle is quite simple. It is just identifying the immediately available clues to fill the empty cells. As each empty cell gets filled, new clues emerge to eventually fill all the cells in the 9 X 9 grid with numbers 1 to 9 uniquely across rows or columns.

Obviously, this process takes several steps and one’s logical reasoning abilities could get stretched beyond limits, depending on the level of difficulty! As said earlier, the visual clarity comes to our rescue in sorting things out as quickly as possible. We will see how in a very short while.

Now, let’s analyze what’s going on while solving the puzzle.

Its quite clear none can fill all the numbers in a few attempts (chasing the result). So, the method followed is to look for rows or columns with max number of cells already filled in. They throw up the opportunities (clues) needed to get the result we want asap.

As we gradually fill the empty cells, the no. of rows or columns with fewer numbers will be less as we make progress. This makes our task easier in getting the result we want asap.

Even though this strategy appears simple, it gets tougher with the level of difficulty in a puzzle. The curious part while doing so is avoiding mistakes i.e., ensuring that no number is repeated twice.

These are the unforeseen risks while we chase the result. Such mistakes consume our precious time in locating such errors and correcting them, leading to frustration, as it usually happens while mitigating risks which aren’t foreseen in advance.

While solving the puzzle, the more the no. of mistakes, the harder its for us to get the result we want. As such complications blow out of proportions, the corrections needed become more and more tedious.

With regard to solving the puzzle context, there is no scope for cutting corners and we have to patiently locate and correct all errors one by one. So, being meticulous while filling the empty cells would be akin to the classic quote — “a stitch in time saves nine”!

Now, its pertinent to recall the visual clarity coming to our aid. As we said earlier, the 3 x 3 sub-grids help in solving the puzzle in less time given their characteristic of containing all the numbers 1 to 9 without repetition. So, one can exploit this by looking for those sub-grids with maximum filled in cells.

And, by crosschecking empty cells in these “dense” sub-grids with other filled in numbers across relevant rows and columns, it’d be easier to figure out the missing numbers and fill the cells accordingly. As more cells get filled this way, more and more sub-grids become “dense”, making the process easier!

So, by combining visual clarity offered by “dense” sug-grids with logical reasoning abilities, it becomes easier to crack the puzzle as quickly as possible!! This same strategy can effectively be implemented in solving real world problems, as we will see very soon!!!

X-Factor in Creativity!

As you can see what’s written in the picture, problems are simply situations with seeds of strife, as we’ve understood the challenges faced while solving sudoku puzzle. And the built-in complexity can easily get complicated due to mistakes committed leading to waste of time and resultant frustration during correcting the errors.

Also, the same puzzle demonstrates that solutions are actually the opportunities identifiable as clues visually available by gauzing the 3 X 3 sub-grids and then correlating them with respective rows as well as columns. So, the clues are simply opportunities with sprouts of outcomes that gradually pave the way for getting the desired results!

Extrapolating this understanding from Sudoku example to real world problems, the solution we need to look for getting desired results is the immediate low hanging fruit(s) which can easily be plucked! Identifying such low hanging fruits paves way for the desired results. Our creative abilities sharpen as we identify the opportunities which could sprout the outcomes we desire!

And the X-Factor inculcating Creativity is to CREATE the opportunities if they aren’t apparent, which is usually the case!! Sudoku nicely demonstrates the way to do so through its visual clarity!

If you recall, the combination of visual clarity plus logical reasoning abilities help solve the puzzle as soon as possible. Looking for visual clues is akin to figuring out low hanging fruits. Once they are identified, plucking them is by applying logical reasoning to solve them.

In real world problems, the visual clarity one can get is from the plethora of symptoms the problems present themselves to us. If the symptoms aren’t apparent, we need to make them apparent by installing systems and / or processes to make them “visual” i.e., easily detectable.

In an organizational context, one can realize this by having good metrics tracking performances of operations being carried out. Remember the old adage — “you can’t control what you don’t measure”?

So, a good measurement and tracking system of metrics makes the operations “visual”, thus simplifying the spotting of low-hanging fruits! Else, one is perpetually blind to what’s happening and goes by guess work rather than scientific reasoning!

Thus the more data points one has access to, the easier it becomes to process them and stratify the problems according to their complexity. And solving them one by one or clustering them based on their correlations among the symptoms helps one to systematically address the problem solving process!!

The famous Fish Bone diagram facilitates this clustering of symptoms by grouping them according to 6M’s — Man, Machine, Method, Materials, Measurement and Mother Nature. Organizing the symptoms under these sub-heads is similar to “seeing” the numbers in 3 X 3 sub-grids of Sudoku!

So, the subheadings of 6M’s when presented as a fish-bone diagram, one gets to see the “denser” and “sparsely” populated symptoms so as to intuitively figure out which subhead(s) need to be dealt with first. Subsequent analysis helps “bubbling up” major symptoms in some or all the sub-heads for figuring out the ultimate root cause through further steps.

Please note that populating the 6M subheads as described here is significantly different from the traditional way of using the Fish bone diagram. Normally, the known causes under each subhead are listed in order to arrive at the point of cause to be analyzed further.

For example, under the Machine subhead, if its known that a machine is frequently breaking down, it’d be listed as such and such equipment is malfunctioning. However, this could be an unverified assumption at times the problem being faced. It could be that the equipment could be failing due to some other reasons unknown to us as yet.

So, what’s done in the new method is to list out the abnormal symptoms being observed in various related activities of relevant processes. This would lead to a thorough investigation covering not only the equipment malfunction but also the other unknown under the hood causes adversely affecting the operations.

Thus, the tweak you’ll be following in recording the symptoms instead of known causes under each subhead would be a game changer in terms of identifying opportunities called “low hanging fruits” leading to creative problem solving approach. Its a game changer since it eliminates unverified assumptions being passed on as probable causes which could potentially mislead further steps in problem solving, leading to wrong conclusions.

Similarly, regarding those subheads which apparently don’t seem to have any connection with the problem being faced, it’d be the best approach to record as “symptoms unknown yet”. These unknowns could lead to scientific investigation using Six sigma or Lean thinking or some other relevant set of tools to establish any unknown correlations with known symptoms of other related subheads.

This approach is quite similar to solving Sudoku puzzle starting with “dense” sub-grids having a few empty cells and then branching out to relevant row(s) or column(s) from there. Since it saves lot of time in solving the puzzle, same benefit will be there when its applied to real world problems using Fish bone diagram approach outlined here.

As you can see, this is a holistic approach triggering creative problem solving in hitherto unknown realms of operations. It might appear to be wide ranging on the surface, but it quickly narrows down to thoroughly investigated causes leading to unearthing proper root cause(s).

Thanks to Sudoku, one can methodically implement this visual plus logical combination strategy and reap rich dividends through getting results sooner!!! The clear benefits are in exploring the subheads marked with “unknown symptoms” for establishing relevant metrics and/or best practices.

Here’re the action steps to summarize what can be done to inculcate creative problem solving:

  • Identify / Track relevant metrics to measure process data so as to identify unhealthy symptoms
  • Use data interpretation techniques to observe the symptoms “visually”
  • Organize symptoms under 6M subheads to depict them in Fish Bone Diagram format. This step allows to “see” the “low hanging fruits” and easily “pluck” them!
  • Identify the subheads with majority symptoms for further analysis to figure out root cause.
  • Identify the subheads without many symptoms as “unknown symptoms yet”, rather than leaving them blank. Marking them as “unknown” helps in further scientific investigation to establish missing metrics etc.
  • Eliminate or minimize other minor symptoms which don’t require further analysis to improve process health related teething issues per predetermined priorities.
  • Identify corrective and preventive actions to eliminate root cause once its identified using A3 template etc.

Thus, applying insights from solving Sudoku puzzle goes a long way in fostering creative problem solving to help organizations improve operational effectiveness!



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Ramana Murthy H V

Ramana Murthy H V

Business Excellence Analyst building futuristic SEVA (Sustainable, Evolutionary, Visionary and Agile) Business Models leveraging self-organizing Systems