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Problem-Solving Methodologies: A Comparative Study of Two

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Individual Assignment

Compare and contrast two problem-solving methodologies, select one of these and apply it to a situation in your organisation. The latter should be written in a `case study` format

What is a Problem?

In an individuals professional and social life, they will have objectives or desired outcomes that they aim to reach. These may be in preparing to take a family holiday or meeting a high sales target at work. During the course of attaining that goal they will encounter either an occurrence or obstacle that prevents the person achieving the desired aim or objective. This circumstance or discrepancy is a problem. It is preventing the individual from achieving their desired state of affairs in the manner that they had planned or had perceived it would be achieved.

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The problem solving methodology that an organisation will choose to attempt to solve these problems will determine their strategy and general approach to problem solving. It will determine what tools and techniques they use to assist in their processes. The comparison between a hard systems approach to problem solving and a soft systems approach provides us with two very different outlooks and are based on differing fundamental assumptions on how human beings interact.

Hard Systems Thinking – Optimisation

In the years after the Second World War, when lessons from military operations were applied to industrial companies and Government agencies, an interest in systems ideas developed in many fields. This interest was signalled by the formation of the Society for General Systems Research in 1954, a group of people who were interested in applying systems thinking in traditional disciplines.

The basic principle that a hard system thinking emphasises is the use of quantification and measurement to understand systems. This strategy is intended to reduce the level of uncertainty that is associated with confronting problems and the possible options that are available to attempt to solve the problems. The core belief of hard systems approaches are that rationalisation and systematisation of problem-solving processes will lead to the best decisions being made.

Soft Systems Thinking Appreciation

Soft systems thinking and the associated approaches to problem solving have developed primarily over the past two decades. The approaches are based on the belief that because individuals views are subjective experiences, there is no single reality. This means that individuals will view and interpret activities differently based on their own social, cultural and political experiences.

As people view situations differently, it is not possible to accurately define a problem and as a result, there is no opportunity to produce a perfect solution.

Soft systems thinking addresses organisational problem solving through the use of continuous learning and communication. These will increase an organisations` capacity for problem solving. The fundamental aim is to create a Learning Organisation whose` goals are not to solve problems instantly, but to consider problematic areas as the organisations` members of awareness of the issues related to the areas broaden and deepen.

The Comparison between Hard and Soft Systems Problem Solving Methodologies

Hard systems approaches are characterised by the fundamental assumption that a definitive problem statement can identify the problem solving process. This clearly defined problem forms for foundation for all the subsequent structured steps. The end point of the process is to change the system in a way that eliminates the problem. Once a problem has been clearly identified, the process that follows focuses on identifying and evaluating alternative solutions.

By contrast, soft systems problem solvers believe there are no problems waiting to be solved because the problem is being enacted through an individuals conditioning and perception. As a result of this thinking they recognise that there are no permanent solutions, only improvements. These become a continuous series of on going improvements, which are regarded as accommodations.

A useful way of comparing the two methodologies is to consider two different models that have been developed that use the alternative principles as discussed above. N. K. Kwak and S. A. DeLurglo [1] have developed a seven stage problem solving process that is based on the principles of Operations Research (OR). OR is an application of hard systems thinking that uses different mathematical techniques to solve specific types of problems. It approaches problems by using the scientific method of inquiry. Peter Checkland`s [2] soft system methodology as similarly a seven step sequential model. It is an example of a model that uses interactive planning.

Interactive planning is participative. It requires the direct involvement of stakeholders. It asks stakeholders to make plans to achieve whatever they believe to be important.

OR process is the problem formulation. This includes defining the object of the study, measures of effectiveness and efficiency and the boundaries to the system. It identifies controllable variables and uncontrollable variables. This approach in itself does two things. It is immediately implying that we will come to a finite result at the end of the process. It is also acknowledging that it is not in a closed system. In other words, it is qualifying the process by stating that there are elements that may well effect the situation but are beyond the control of the systems capabilities.

Checklands model are based on finding out about the situation. These include identifying the stakeholders of the problem, the social and political environment that surrounds the situation, and the roles that individuals are playing and who has ownership of the areas that may be effected. The principle is to generate as much understanding of the variety of views that people will have and how they may benefit the possible change.

OR model is about specifying the model to be used. These are normally in forms that are scaled down representations of the overall system. The model will apply statistical evidence to help understand the variation that may exist within a situation and the most effective solution. Some of the tools that can be used include Cause and Effect diagrams, Flow Charts, Scatter Diagrams and Selection Grids.

By contrast, the soft systems approach requires the use of root definitions. These examine the relationship of the following relevant subsystems: customers, people active in the system, the world view, the owner (who the people in power will respond to the activity) and the environment. The comparison between the two methodologies is quite evident. The hard approach acknowledges the influences on the system but makes judgements to not address the impact the problem may have on them whereas the soft approach attempts to consider the interests of all the elements that it feels has a concern in the situation.

The hard systems model involves the validation of the model. This includes checking that assumptions, variables, parameters and relationships that have been previously proposed are valid. Stage 4 moves onto the derivation of the solution. This in effect is the result of the model process and would hopefully provide the expected solution that can be implemented.

The Checkland model requires the formation of conceptual models. The aim of this is to illustrate the relationship among the subsystems. These identify how all elements are related and in what sequence. These models are known as action research models. Again, the difference between this approach and the OR process is that there is a concerted attempt for a broader outlook. Rather than look for an explicit target or decision, this approach leans towards a guide of direction in which an organisation may move. Stage 5 starts to compare the model with reality. The models will help people understand the problem situation. Its purpose is to help people challenge assumptions and search for ways to employ new ideas as actions for improvement.

The Kwak and DeLurgio model require the evaluation of results and the implementation of the model. If at stage 5 the results are unacceptable, the process may well return to stage 1 and start again. This is a consequence of both the need to produce an optimum solution and its singular direction.

The soft system approach, the extent to which possible changes are feasible is identified. The two criteria that are judged are systematic desirability and cultural feasibility. This results in solutions being judged both on their technical merits and how people will embrace them. The final stage 7 is the action taking stage. The action will then result in a new situation and the action research cycle will begin again.

The hard systems approach is similar in that it involves the implementation of the solution. However, the model perceives this as the finish line with no recognition toward the need to explore the need to consider the new situation. It implies that if the process has been worked through in its set manner, there should be a correct solution to the problem.

Manchester Airport Terminal Two Baggage System.

As the airport has increased its throughput of passengers, it has become increasingly aware of the persistent failure of the existing baggage system in Terminal Two to meet the increased demand. Using soft systems problem solving techniques, I will discuss the approach that the airport could take to improve the current situation

Acknowledge and find out about the situation.

Although the Terminal was only completed in 1993, it was clear to everyone at the airport that the baggage system was not up to the job. This created a major situation for various groups at the airport. Not only were the management responsible for the system concerned about its` performance, but there were other groups who were affected. The list of stakeholders can be identified as follows:-

  • Manchester Airport Engineering (responsible for maintenance)
  • Manchester Airport Customer Services Managers (responsible for airport operation)
  • Manchester Airport Staff (baggage handlers, airfield staff etc. day to day work is affected.)
  • Engineering Contractor (who installed the system)
  • Airlines (The main users of the system)
  • Regulatory Bodies (Legislative bodies that award the Airport its certification and status)
  • Passengers (The users of the airport)
  • Manchester Airport Security Staff
  • Manchester Airport Business Partners (caterers, retail, car parks, handling agents etc. who provide service to airport users)

All of these groups of people will have a differing view on the way that the problem situation is affecting them. The bringing together of these world views will assist in understanding the value system associated with the situation. I would expect that some of the stakeholders view the situation as an opportunity. Some of the catering and retail concerns would see a benefit in having passengers spending longer periods in the Terminal.

Forming Root Definitions

The major relationship between the stakeholders and their systems of operation is that they are working in a 24 hours a day, 365 days a year environment together. In certain respects, their survival is inter-dependant. If the baggage system is not performing as desired, the other interests will not be able to meet their objectives.

The manager of the system will be given ownership of the situation and any change that will take place. It will be his responsibility to gather views and debate the alternative processes that could take place to enable improvement of the system. The major consideration will be how the operation of the airport can be maintained while the improvements to the system are implemented.

Building Conceptual Models

It is the responsibility of all the stakeholders to consider what they believe are the problems that can be addressed with the system. The aim of this stage is to question and encourage the different parties to propose improvements that could be made. Emphasis must be placed on creativity and no ideas should be suppressed.

The owner of the process must then analyse the ideas, sort them into simple categories and feed them back to all the stakeholders again for further consideration. The information can then be analysed by all the stakeholders and this in turn may ignite a new idea that the group could consider. At the end of this stage the owner of the process should be able to identify several improvement proposals that have been mutually accepted by the group. This process enables stakeholders to understand one another’s views and values they place on the system.

Comparing ideas with reality

Following the creative thinking process, it is at this point that consideration is given to how realistic the ideas for improvement are. The perceived constraints that the team believes it is working around have to be challenged and discussions should centre on how the new ideas may be employed.

Defining Changes

It is only at this stage that the feasibility of the possible alternatives for changing the system can be determined. The two criteria that they must be based upon are systematic desirability and cultural acceptability. The systematic desirability examines the technical merits of the proposed accommodations and, in this case, will be the basis of for the greatest weighting of the selection. For example, the group will have constraints on the hall that the baggage system operates within and proposals for expansion of the existing system may be unachievable. The cultural acceptability of the ideas may also need consideration. If one of the proposed improvements involves a change in the level of manual handling of baggage, this could have an adverse effect to moral of the employees.

Taking Action

The implementation of the recommendations that were both acceptable and feasible to all requires action that is guided by the new awareness generated by the learning process that has been undertaken. The aim is that, as and when the improvements are undertaken, a new situation occurs and the cycle should begin again. The group, with all the stakeholders represented, must continue to discuss and propose now ideas for consideration with a goal to refine the system.

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