I once attended a valuable and thought-provoking presentation by Matthew E. May, "The Elegant Solution" based upon lessons learned as a University of Toyota consultant focused on broadening the application of the Toyota Production System to other areas of the company.
The elegant solution is Toyota's formula for mastering innovation with a core concept of satisfying needs and creating value, not new gadgetry. A fundamental of the elegant solution concept is superior solutions are elegant in their simplicity. Creating elegant solutions generally requires a great deal of thinking and design work, with results that appear obvious after they are created. An insightful comment by May is elegant solutions are found at the far side of complexity.
Some of the obstacles to elegant solutions include the "home run" trap, which invariably destroys a strong batting average over time and carries with it huge risks and high cost. In my experience, it is rare to find a "silver bullet," that one thing that would solve major problems. More often there are a number of incremental changes that lead to improvements.
May makes the point that framing an issue or problem is critical and a lost art. Properly framing an issue or problem goes far in avoiding the typical pitfalls that limit the ability to reach an elegant solution. Many times, we are impatient, with short attention spans, limiting the time and effort expended to frame issues and problems. The obsession for immediate fixes blocks us from creating optimal solutions. A great problem framer focuses on asking the right question and fights the urge to be prescriptive right away. You gain no insight by jumping to immediate solutions.
Solving problems frivolously can be a brainstorm trap. Another issue is without a clear focus on outcomes, too much cleverness in adding bells and whistles can easily get out of control and carry the danger of complexity that can creep into projects.
May cited studies of brainstorming sessions revealing idea generation generally falls short after about 20 minutes. At that point, most groups stop and turn their attention to evaluating their ideas; however, the research shows the teams with the best ideas do not stop there. They embrace a psychological barrier and manage to find more novel and innovative ideas that are widely divergent and enormously creative. This is a fundamental I learned at the Creative Education Foundation when trained as a group facilitator to keep participants working longer on problems and issues using techniques to take them out of their comfort zone to stimulate the creation of better ideas.
Thinking is hard work, and in general we would rather not do much of it. That is why we satisfice, accept the first solution that is satisfactory, rather than explore many alternatives. The result is that we inhibit problem solving, not so much from the analytical viewpoint, but by not expending energy to develop a wide variety of creative and novel options to analyze. A solution should never be entertained as final before exploring the question, "What is possible?"
Innovation is trying to figure out a way to do something better than it has ever been done before. Automation professionals may well benefit from taking a chance to develop options beyond the obvious, finding elegant solutions that are superior.
About the Author
Bill Lydon is an automation industry expert, author, journalist and formerly served as chief editor of InTech magazine. Lydon has been active in manufacturing automation for more than 25 years. He started his career as a designer of computer-based machine tool controls; in other positions, he applied programmable logic controllers and process control technology. In addition to experience at various large companies, he co-founded and was president of a venture-capital-funded industrial automation software company. Lydon believes the success factors in manufacturing are changing, making it imperative to apply automation as a strategic tool to compete.
A version of this article also was published at InTech magazine.