Member Forum by Steve Vijayan

ISE's quarterly column for IISE members to share their perspectives (December 2017)

Communicating the problem is the first step

Recently, I wanted to take home a used shelf that was left for trash at my place of employment. I had to solve two problems to bring this shelf home.

First, I needed a pickup truck to haul it, and I did not own such a vehicle. A colleague of mine offered his truck, solving the first problem.

The second problem was to secure the shelf firmly to the truck bed, because my colleague did not have any tie-down straps or cords. I reasoned that the materials management department was the most likely place to have leftover or used ropes and cardboard since that area receives all of the supplies and equipment that come into the hospital. I found three people in the department and told them that I was looking for ropes. After discussing the matter between themselves, they unanimously responded that there were no ropes in the unit.

I wanted to try one more time.

So this time I briefly explained the problem I was trying to solve: I wanted to secure a shelf on a truck bed and take the shelf home. Apparently, this turned on the light bulb for one of the three people I had spoken with. He suddenly remembered that a vendor had left a set of slightly frayed tie-down straps designed specifically to tie items onto pickup trucks. The second problem was solved.

I realized that if I had walked away after the initial response from my materials management colleagues, the second problem may have remained unsolved, and I would not have been able to bring the shelf home.

While that wouldn't have been the end of the world, the incident does point out the best way to start overcoming obstacles.

Remember, once I communicated the dilemma I was stuck in, it brought out the best problem-solving skills from the materials management associate, who obviously had better knowledge of all the tools and resources in the department than I did. I have seen the same scenario play out multiple times during my interactions with colleagues while trying to get their input to solve problems.

The lesson here is: When looking for input from your colleagues, especially from other departments or organizational units, always communicate the problem you are trying to fix instead of just asking for something specific that you think will be the solution.

When you communicate the problem to your colleagues, it does two things. First, you are implicitly communicating that you are considering them to be subject matter experts, which makes them feel included, respected and valued in the problem-solving effort. Second, communicating the problem instead of asking something specific that you think you need to fix enables your colleagues to provide a completely different perspective about the issue that you may not have considered.

As industrial and systems engineers, we need to collaborate with professionals from other fields. In all these collaborations, communicating the predicament upfront can help us get the information needed to solve important problems for our organizations in an effective and efficient manner. The next time you approach somebody attempting to understand something better or seeking some information about whatever pickle you are in, first communicate the problem you are trying to solve, and only then tell them how you think they can help you solve the problem. You are more likely to get what you need.

Steve Vijayan works as a measurement specialist with the Continuous Improvement Resource Office at the Nemours Children's Health System.