Ready, Set, Solve!

Henry Ford, of Ford Motor Company fame, was having challenges with a systems problem in his plant. After many efforts at resolution, Ford invited Nikola Tesla, a scientist and inventor, to spend some time reviewing the plant operations and advise him. Tesla visited the plant and was on site 30 minutes. He placed an “X” on a particular boilerplate with chalk and departed. Further examination by Ford engineers showed the boilerplate was faulty. Impressed, Ford told Tesla to send an invoice. The bill arrived for $10,000. Astonished and angry about the cost, Ford demanded a breakdown of the invoice. Tesla sent a second bill which read:

Marking the wall: $1
Knowing where to mark: $9,999

This story underscores several important points for managing and leading work.Foremost, it’s about problem-solving. It’s also about value.

Competency Specification
As the success of our work relies increasingly on the use of information as knowledge, we need to be able to understand how to solve problems. And, we also need to understand what to do with our learning. This means reasoning and knowledge capture are vital competencies for individuals and organizations. An emerging trend in job descriptions is the frequent call for “ability to cope with ambiguity.” This points to an implicit concern, but profiles the context not the requisite competency. The capacity to problem solve is far more accurate.

The Knowledge Economy
Consider how the opening parable applies to your workplace. Is problem-solving essential to generating value ? In a new economy – where knowledge is both a product and a tool – problem-solving and knowledge application are key to your organization’s success. Inquiry, or more simply problem-solving, has high value because it is a vital input for managing towards results. Without it, people and organizations can spend loads of time working on the wrong stuff at the wrong time. Waste is a certainty: both real dollars and opportunity costs. While it doesn’t solve all, the processes of inquiry and application can be critical stepping stones to efficiencies and effectiveness. Paying attention to inquiry and knowledge application can ensure the advantage you seek in a complex or highly competitive environment.

A Learn Fast Workplace
Tesla’s mark on the wall was done quickly. The work he did was less observable. In his mind, Tesla framed an inquiry, generated a hypothesis and tested it. From “cues” and past experience he was able to identify possible origins of the problem. We don’t know the precise sequence of steps, what he struggled with and how exactly he determined the faulty boilerplate. Understanding his thought processes would help us build an explicit map of action steps. In this example, the external advisor helped Ford solve an urgent operations problem. The “know-how” that Tesla had was an important contribution with real value. Ford’s underlying challenge was the one we all share today: building a workforce that’s solves problems, exchanges knowledge and learns fast!

-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more information, see:

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One Response to “Ready, Set, Solve!”

  1. Roger Says:

    Well written and thoughtful piece that underscores the urgent need to think, act,, and organize differently. The world is changing at a dramatic — and sometimes frightening — pace. This is the new normal. Our choice is to embrace this new reality or become increasing irrelevant.

    Keep on blogging, Lisa!

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