First Catch Your Problem -- A Good Solution to the Wrong Problem is Not a Solution

In 2006 newspapers reported* on the results of a study to determine the best way to load passengers onto an airplane. In the study they tested various strategies: a free for all; boarding the back rows first and so on. Their conclusion was that the fastest way of boarding passengers was to board first window seats, then middle seats, then aisle seats. Not surprisingly they chose not to adopt this ruthless technique.

All of this is very interesting but the problem is not how to get the passengers onto the plane faster but how to get more time for the boarding. Perhaps you could speed up boarding by using a slide instead of a walkway and by hiring ex-marine instructors to shout encouraging words. But commonsense – actually a very rare commodity – should tell you that passengers will never board much faster, whatever you do.

But why do they need to get on faster anyway? Between the last passengers of one flight disembarking and the first passenger of the next boarding there is always a long delay. Presumably this is needed to clean the plane, fuel it, sniff out the bombs and kill all the dangerous bugs. But if this can be done faster then there is more time to get the passengers on board and you can complete the boarding on time without stressing the poor passengers. In other words, instead of researching how passengers can be made more efficient they should be studying ways to make the turnaround staff quicker, either through innovation, better equipment or more effective management.

The solution-to-wrong-problem scenario is common also in communications. What is sometimes described as poor communications is actually just a symptom of this approach.

There is for example a mentality that sees putting up signs as a solution to problems. I once stayed at the Quebec November Hotel (not the real name) somewhere in England where there was a neatly made sign on the lift/elevator saying that it was broken. There were also carefully crafted notices explaining that the vending machines were broken.

After several days all the signs were still there but there were no signs of any attempt to repair anything. There is even a meticulously made sign on the front desk explaining that the charity collection box is no longer left on the counter because it had been stolen and that if you want to give to the local orphans you must ask the staff. Instead of spending time writing and printing neat signs someone should be actually fixing the problems.

* “All aboard with a little help from Einstein”, The Guardian, 27 July 2006,


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