Monday, March 06, 2020

The Quick Fix: Today's Black Art

Our culture of "faster is better" and instant gratification is elevating the quick fix from a second or third-rate expedient, acceptable only under duress, to the normal way many people deal with problems.

The attractiveness of the quick fix is based on three grossly overrated attributes:
  • Speed;
  • Ease; and
  • Simplicity.
Quick fixes are speedy because they rely purely on existing knowledge and rules of thumb. It's the art of using the most obvious answer, regardless of the details of the situation. But where time is already severely limited, spending it on discovering the fundamental source of a problem becomes an impossible luxury. Excessive pressure often compels reliance on the quick fix.

The ease of the quick fix is an illusion born of using what's known and habitual—even if the problem is novel and unprecedented. In addition, quick fixes usually bypass the involvement—or agreement—of others. They appeal to the temptation to do it all yourself, plus the wish to avoid wasting time on discussion or inviting disagreement. Finding the true nature of the difficulty, then reaching a permanent solution, may demand dealing with many other people first. Of course, your quick fix may cause additional problems for these people; but those aren't your problems. Part of the art of the quick fix is pushing your problems out of your silo. Don't worry if they turn up somewhere else, with extra problems in tow. You'll be in the clear. Blast the difficulty high in the air and hope it comes down far, far away.

Quick fixes are simple—and frequently simplistic too. There's no time or inclination for deeper thought. The simpler the "answer," the better. A complicated solution is rarely quick or easy, which is precisely the lure of the quick fix. We're enjoined to "keep it simple, stupid." In many cases, keeping it simple is, indeed, the stupid thing to do, though I doubt that's what those who mindlessly repeat this empty mantra think they mean.

Our culture is obsessed with action: for "making things happen." Thoughtfulness is dismissed as "unrealistic" or "impracticable." It's usually rather easy to make something happen; making the right something happen is the tough part. But the dedicated proponent of the quick fix relies on being well away from the danger area long before it becomes clear the action he or she brought about made things worse.

People don't want to do a poor job, sticking broken systems together with duct tape and hoping it'll hold long enough to get past the next quarter's figures; they do what they do because they feel they have no alternative. No time to understand; no space to create a long-term answer. The pressures they face are crazy: impossible demands, inadequate resources, bosses who believe bullying is the same as leadership. No wonder the temptation to resort to quick fixes becomes irresistible. Besides, the pressures are definite and here today; the fallout from a mistaken quick fix is uncertain and will occur—if it does—sometime in the future. Who knows if they'll even have a job by then?

Organizations become addicted to quick fixes. Like other drugs, quick fixes produce a temporary sense of relief and euphoria. Addiction is accompanied by strenuous denials; the organization is always fully able to kick the habit—only not quite yet. The negative impact on corporate health takes time to emerge and by then, it's too late. Corporate cold turkey is no more pleasant than any other kind. Rather than face the reality of their situation, household name businesses resort to ever larger doses of special offers, marketing gimmicks and rapid changes of top personnel. They cannot face the reality: that their competitors have a better product and their quick fixes are doing nothing to alter this.

The road to Hell, it's said, is paved with good intentions. The road to corporate collapse is surfaced with quick fixes of every kind. It's time to acknowledge the quick fix for what it is: an inadequate response typically born of unreasonable haste, lazy thinking and desperate pressures.

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Stefano Turri said...

All too true, but I don't really agree that the problem is the simplicity.... the addictive "drug" is the "perceived easyness" of the "obvious" solution.

The complex "obvious" solution is not necessarily better, and may also lead to abuse and problems.

In fact neither complexity nor simplicity are qualities by themselves, but depends heavily on the context."Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler. (A.Einstein)" is usually a better answer than a generic "Keep it simple".
Simple is not easy, it might even be much more harder than a more complex solution. Finding the right simple solution require that you slow down (to really analyze the problem) in order to go faster (really and effectively solve the problem), and this is really hard to justify in many working environments.

At the end Quick Fixes are something like money debts, in small quantities are not dangerous, but keep making them and you have to pay a lot of negative interest sooner or later.

3:24 PM  
Kathleen Fasanella said...

You've touched on something that is a considerable problem (I'm the one who comments from time to time with regard to "lean manufacturing"). I'm not posting here with the intent of driving traffic to my site but I write about this extensively on my site (within the parameters of apparel manufacturing). Here's an excerpt:

However unlikely the analogy, I found some great reference material in which to frame the question more appropriately in an article about nurses in Why Your Organization Isn't Learning All It Should by Tucker, Edmondson and Spear [courtesy of Harvard Business School -get a free subscription here] (all excerpted material is from the latter). I think the biggest problem is framing the question properly. Toward that end, the authors make an important distinction in that they describe "first order processing" as fixing problems in the immediate (a work around) and "second order processing" as "diagnosing and altering root causes to prevent recurrence".

First-order problem solving allows work to continue but does nothing to prevent a similar problem from occurring. Workers exhibit first-order problem solving when they do not expend any more energy on a problem after obtaining the missing input needed to complete a task. Second-order problem solving, in contrast, investigates and seeks to change underlying causes of a problem.

Yet according to their research, nurses -in spite of being relatively empowered and comparatively powerful when compared to sewing operators and better educated too- are no more likely to engage in second order processing than are sewing operators. In sewing factories, failing to report problems is endemic. In my experience, it's more likely that a stitcher will say nothing no matter how much you beg them to tell you of problems and in an outside shop where you have little if any control, I can only imagine the response is worse.
I've written on these problems quite extensively. I have links to more resources if anybody's interested. This problem is one that is heavily weighed in "lean manufacturing". Lean really addresses all of the issues that are touched on in this blog. I wish more people knew about it. It's lean, not mean, compassionate yet profit minded. Everybody wins, what's not to like?

8:24 AM  
Kathleen Fasanella said...

I apologize for double postings but I forgot to mention the "incentives" for why this occurs. The number one reason is probably "heroism", an undeniably altruistic behavior. Another excerpt:

1. Altruism-Heroism. The individual "rescues" the product with a work-around. The plant (including peers and supervisors) foster short order problem solving by rewarding these behaviors. Indeed, US culture is defined by self-reliance and boot-strapping.

The problem is to get people to move beyond reactionism toward proactivism. The barriers to this are myriad. Management bears the responsibility of creating an environment where solutions move beyond first order processing. It's not easy but it can be done. At the very least, it requires a cultural shift in the workplace (just as you've been saying all along). I recommend everybody read "lean thinking" to start.

8:30 AM  

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