Remembering Jerry: Are your lights on?

It’s been four years since – sadly – Gerald M. “Jerry” Weinberg passed away. Ever since then, I struggled with some public mourning about him, until recently I had just the right idea. On a weekly basis, I will publish a review of a book I read that Jerry either wrote himself or is about some of his work. Today, we are going to take a look at Are your lights on? – How to figure out what the problem REALLY is coauthored with Donald C. Gause. published by Dorset House Publishing in 1990.

Gause and Weinberg tell a couple of stories revolving around problem-solving. After each story, they summarize the lesson to take away from the story and generalize principles of problem-solving illustrated by each of the stories. To give you a glimpse of what these stories contain, probably the story behind the title is the most memorable one.

The story behind the title

A couple of years back, in the Swiss alps, there was a leisure vacation point where people would drive to, picnic or hike, and then return home. The road to that hiking spot went through a tunnel, and the district in charge of the tunnel became aware that many recreational visitors did not turn on their headlights while going through the tunnel, eventually leading to a series of car accidents. So, they thought of giving some directions to car drivers through that tunnel.

After weeks of negotiation and problem-solving, a group came up with a design for a sign at the beginning of the tunnel: “Turn your lights on!” They produced the sign, put it in front of the tunnel entries, and considered the problem solved. Only days after installing the sign, though, many recreational visitors started to complain about their batteries draining. The commission sought to take a look into the matter and quickly found out that many folks turned on their lights at the beginning of the tunnel, but never remembered to turn them off after leaving the tunnel, leading to drained car batteries while going on a hike.

In order to solve the problem they created, the commission went back to the drawing table and designed a sign for the exits of the tunnel. Applying a good Swiss engineering attitude, they came up with the following instructions, considering every possibility:

If it is daylight, and if your lights are on, turn off your lights.
If it is dark, and if your lights are off, turn on your lights.
If it is daylight, and if your lights are off, leave your lights off.
If it is dark, and if your lights are on, leave your lights on.

Hastily, they produced the signs for the end of the tunnel and put them up. Weeks later, the complaints continued, since no car driver ever could read that much of text while keeping an eye on the road.

The tunnel exit signs eventually got replaced by a sign with a single question:

Are your lights on?

The authors of the book explain their approach to problem-solving by basically asking three questions:

  • What’s the problem?
  • Who has the problem?
  • Who should solve the problem?

In the first tunnel exit sign instance, the commission thought they needed to solve every problem car drivers would have while the car drivers really were the ones to solve the problem of their headlight being on or off after exiting the tunnel.

My main takeaways years after reading

Years later, these three questions still stick in my brain whenever I encounter a problem a group of people wants to solve.

What’s the problem? What’s the problem behind the problem? Again, what is really the problem? Trying to solve a problem that is not well-enough understood oftentimes leads to haphazard solutions that only fix symptoms rather than root causes. I haven’t counted the times where a solution is put in place without understanding what the problem really is, only for the initial problems to appear again eventually, after much effort has been put into a solution that merely scratches the surface of the problem.

Who has the problem? Consider the people who are having the problem to start with. What would be acceptable solutions from their point of view? What would be unacceptable solutions? How are they going to incorporate the solution we’re thinking of? Will it meet resistance? All these questions are mandatory to understand unless you want to face a situation where a proposed solution is rejected.

Who should solve the problem? This point sort of blew my mind at the time. The person who has the problem is not necessarily the person that should solve the problem. Maybe some other person or group is way better equipped to solve the problem that exists for another person. Even today, I find this point at times at odds with concepts like The Responsibility Process, and the like. Thinking through the Responsibility Process you may conclude that “taking responsibility” for some problem that you have, means solving it on your own. I consider it to be taking responsibility even if you manage to persuade the group who really should be solving a problem to solve that problem, even though you are the one suffering from it. At times, I find myself in situations where others don’t agree with my thinking there.

I recall applying this same thinking a couple of years back. At the client at the time, there were some boxes of drinks freely available for anyone in the building. They had put the boxes with full bottles a bit separate from the boxes with empty bottles. At times I noticed how people continued to put their empty bottles into the boxes with full bottles, leading to some confusion, and oftentimes boxes of empty bottles among the boxes of full ones.

I noticed that the full bottles were placed before the empty ones. So, if you needed a new bottle, you would take your empty bottle, pick a new one, and put your empty bottle right in place. On one evening I shuffles the order of the boxes around, so people would first reach the empty bottle boxes before being able to get to the full ones. A week later, there were way fewer empty bottles among the boxes with full bottles. All of my thinking about the problem originated from the book Are your lights on.

As the story I shared regarding the title of the book showed, Are your lights on? is a pretty funny read at times, even though some folks may not be ready to make the leap towards the more general points regarding problem-solving. (I recall having a hard time on some of the points, depending on the mood I found myself in on the day of reading it.) Beyond that, it’s a pretty entertaining read, even if you don’t get the general points right from the get-go, and probably a book worthy to re-read anyways.

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