Testing the “Smalley Sieve” – 4 types of Problems & “The Martian” (#44)

Problem Solving & Movies are two things I like. The former I’ve been coaching for 20 years; sometimes well, sometimes badly. The latter I’ve loved since schooldays. Over the years I’d broadly carved Problem Solving up into:

1) Troubleshooting to deal with “abnormality” and return to “normal”

2) Practical Problem Solving (Toyota TBP style) to get to root cause & prevent recurrence with flexible use of pie chart, pareto chart, 5 why, fishbone etc

3) Using A3’s to coach 2) with Team & Group Leaders & for “raise the standard” activities.

1) 2) and 3) are often connected.

I appreciate that other opinions are available but these rough categories worked for me & my clients.

When Art Smalley recently offered up his “4 types of Problems” for our perusal, my ears perked up to the extent that I designed a small, informal experiment to test me & his model (which I’m calling the Smalley Sieve)

I got to wondering if I could recognise & stratify a nice balance of the 4 types of problems from one movie. Apollo 13 was a candidate but I settled on Ridley Scott’s The Martian based on Andy Weir’s book. The movie is just under 3 hours of wall-to-wall Problem Solving from stranded Astronaut Mark Watney & NASA, so I was hopeful.

Below is a picture of my workings and MY results based on MY interpretation of Smalley’s categories. The capitalised MY’s reflect the fact that I believe MY results are incorrect. MY stratification changed throughout the film & forced me to consider some interesting things (see (C) below). As ever, application of a model deepens understanding, challenges biases & tests the model at its margins.

A) Anyway, here are my workings showing what each problem was, when it happened & how I stratified it (no chance you’ll be able to read my handwriting though):

B) MY results were:

Type 1 - Trouble-shooting - 6 Problems

Type 2 - Gap from Standard – 4 Problems

Type 3 - Target Setting – 9 Problems

Type 4 - Innovation Oriented – 10 Problems.

C) Points of interest are below. By the way, I only looked at Technical Problems faced & solved by Watney on the red planet, the crew of the Hermes or the NASA boffins on Earth (The book is also a far richer resource in Problem Solving terms but I didn’t fancy reading and dissecting it again)

(i) This entire exercise is technically futile as everything in The Martian, from the point that Watney got stabbed by the flying aerial (opening scene!), is a caused problem, mostly Type 1 Trouble-shooting…

(ii) …& yet, if you can get past this and accept that Watney establishes new ‘normals’, subsequent problems can be stratified into the 4 types (maybe)

(iii) Later on I decided that most of the problems were Type 4 as they’re forced to be pretty innovative. Really interestingly, severe resource constraints removed most cognitive constraints. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that.

A lot depends on your definition of “Troubleshooting”. My years working with Japanese manufacturers mean that I define it as “returning a process to normal”. When the intention (normal) wasn’t to strand a man on Mars, there is no “normal” to return to, or is there?

None of this stopped my teenage children pointing out that I should get a life. I think there’s something in this though, a group of lean thinkers gathered around a movie screen debating how to stratify Problems. Add popcorn or beer & I’ll be there.


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