Flexible Focus #20: The Principle of Optimization

by William Reed on September 23, 2010

What do you do when the tiger is loose?

Ideally, it is best if the tiger can escape to its natural habitat. If that is not possible, since it is dangerous to let the big cat run free, on the surface it seems there are only two acceptable solutions. Capture it alive if possible, or kill it if you have to. Whatever you do, don’t wound it, because then it will hunt you down. To find out why, read John Vaillant’s, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

The approach you take has a lot to do with the result you will get. Let’s first take the conventional approach to the problem: Plan, Do, Check, Action (PDCA). You discover that the tiger is missing, and immediately set about a Plan to recover the animal, placing human safety first. You then set about to Do your plan, that is capture the animal alive or kill it. You Check your progress by seeing how the plan is going. Then you take Action to adjust your plan to achieve your goal of capturing the animal dead or alive.

The PDCA approach is rooted in the scientific method developed by Francis Bacon, and is found in one form or another in the approaches Dr. W. Edwards Deming in the 1950s to quality control, and in the Six Sigma Method, which seek breakthroughs and a rapid rate of improvement. With this approach, often the problem is solved quickly, but tends to recur, because too little attention is paid to the root cause of the problem.

This is in contrast to the approach of Kaizen, or gradual but continuous improvement, which was developed in Japan, and is rooted more in flexible focus. How does the Kaizen approach apply to the catching the tiger?

Although the approach may seem similar, the steps happen in a different sequence, Check, Action, Plan, Do (CAPD). When the tiger is discovered missing, the first thing to do is thoroughly Check the cause to find out what actually happened, how the tiger escaped, what condition it might be in, where it is likely to be. Then Action is taken to locate the tiger. Depending on the circumstances, a Plan is implemented placing human safety first. Then you Do the plan, capturing the animal alive if possible, or killing it if you have to.

Think like a detective

This is similar to the way a detective thinks, and not only facilitates the process of recovery, but also helps prevent the problem from recurring, because it starts with a thorough understanding of the cause of the problem.

The fundamental difference is that PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Action) focuses first on attacking the problem, while CAPD (Check, Action, Plan, Do) focuses first on understanding the cause of the problem and then formulating the solution. This is more than a semantic difference. Both approaches work, however because PDCA tends to rush quickly into action, in the worst case it can lead to shoot first, ask questions later, where the solution can be worse than the problem. Call it fire fighting thinking, or short-term crisis management.

CAPD is slower to act, and therefore may be less appropriate in an emergency, but it can lead to more secure and lasting solutions because it looks first at the cause of the problems, rather than its symptoms. It is the method which Toyota Motor Corporation applies in its Kaizen program with the 5WHY method, thoroughly understanding the problem first by repeatedly asking Why, before attempting to solve it. It overcomes the tendency to make snap judgments based on the symptoms. It helps determine the root causes of the problem, and create a solution which fixes the problem and prevents it from occurring. Call it fire prevention thinking, or long-term crisis prevention.

The reason why the CAPD approach is closer to the Mandala Chart is that it is based on flexible focus, the appreciation that not only is everything closely interwoven, but that the way we see and interact things ultimately determines the outcome itself.

This partly explains why Japanese are so preoccupied with understanding and involvement in the actual scene, site, and situation (現場 genba). News documentaries go into great detail on how things are made, and how problems are solved by better understanding the situation. Business meetings begin with gathering information and talking to people who are closest to the problem. Practical experience (場数 bakazu), or the number of times you have been through it, is valued more than how well you are able to talk about the theoretical solution. A perennial topic in Japanese business circles is the importance of situational empowerment (場力 baryoku).

This explains such proverbs as “Persistence prevails” (ishi no ue ni mo san nen, spend three years on a rock), or “Perseverance brings power” (keizoku wa chikara nari). It is why the apprentice system was so effective in learning crafts and the martial arts. And the decline of this approach is partly to blame for Japan’s loss of competitiveness in recent years.

Say farewell to Mr. Murphy

The Principle of Optimization could shed light on Murphy’s Law, the peculiar assumption that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Perhaps this should be amended to read, anything that can go wrong will go wrong, if the root causes are not understood.

The Principle of Optimization could also shed light on the traditional Western jokes about having a Plan B, because Plan A never seems to work. Ironically, it often turns out that Plan B is no better than Plan A, and the only thing left to do is run like hell.

Even Benjamin Franklin recognized that, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

But the real meaning of the Principle of Optimization is that once you have understood where you are, and know where you want to be, you can place a mental hook at your goal and pull yourself toward it. In this sense, you are on a constant quest to make things better.

All too many people, frustrated by unfulfilled dreams and difficult circumstances, become exhausted in trying to push the rock uphill, only to find it roll back down again, a story as old as ancient Greece in the Myth of Sisyphus.

As a reminder, and to assist in both goal setting and problem solving, download a Mandala Chart PDF for the PRINCIPLE OF OPTIMIZATION.

Flexible Focus enables you to see simultaneously the big picture of your ultimate goal, the fine detail of your situation, and the changing circumstances that surround it. Create a mental hook where you want to be, use the Mandala Chart to put yourself there already in your mind and on paper, stop pushing and start pulling.

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