Great Piece on Problem Solving


Elegant Solutions: Mind of the Innovator

Matthew May is the author of the book The Elegant Solution, a friend of this blog, and a blogger in his own right. He has a new “ChangeThis” manifesto called Mind of the Innovator: Taming the Traps of Traditional Thinking.

His piece gives some excellent examples of how we tend to jump to solutions without first properly defining and understanding the problem. He poses a fascinating challenge in the piece (read his piece for the “answer” and, more importantly, the powerful Toyota problem solving approach):

You own an upscale neo-luxury health club. As part of the membership perks, each of the 40 shower stalls is stocked with a bottle of very expensive, salon-only shampoo. The customers love it and rave about it. The front desk sells the bottles. Unfortunately, bottles disappear from the showers all the time. In fact, theft rate is 33%, presenting a costly situation. You've tried reminders, penalties, and incentives to try and reduce theft, but nothing so far has worked. You do not want to discontinue or alter the shampoo offering in any way—one bottle of the current brand per stall must not change. You want the problem solved within the guidelines:

  • Theft must be 100% eliminated
  • Any solution must be one of zero cost
  • No burden on the patron

How do you prevent the theft of shampoo?

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  1. JB says

    This is fun Mark! ; – )

    I think installing a Classy looking stainless steel pump type dispenser (mounted to the stall walls) would eliminate theft and reduce how often the shampoo must be refilled.

    All the Best,


  2. Mark Graban says

    It is fun! But the stainless steel dispensers would cost $$$.

  3. Anonymous says

    Use hotel-style bottles, have them handed out from the towel room, and budget for each bottle to be single-use.

  4. Mark Graban says

    I think the small hotel bottles would probably cost more than the larger sizes. Having to carry a small bottle in might be some small “burden” on the patron….

  5. Anonymous says

    Okay, here’s where I lose interest in the problem. This isn’t a real-world problem; it’s a logic puzzle where the author has invented a bunch of arbitrary requirements that only their “clever” solution will meet.

    That’s not problem solving, it’s playing a silly game. :)

  6. Mark Graban says

    I still found Matt’s piece to be helpful. We do tend to jump to solutions, solutions that cost money, or we get frustrated with the challenges…

  7. Anonymous says

    “Thinking outside the box” is definitely something to encourage in others and oneself. But you blow on the embers by fostering discussion around the problem and discussions proposed solutions, not by soliciting solutions and saying “wrong!” “wrong!” “wrong!” trying to get to one specific solution that you’ve designed the problem around.

  8. Mark Graban says

    Sure, this would be much more rewarding discussion if we were all in the same room. That’s how real brainstorming and problem solving occurs, I suppose.

  9. JB says


    I didn’t error-proof my reading of the “zero cost” requirement. Imagine my red face ; – )

    I’ll have to give it a little more thought, but, the one-time investment in the dispensers should pay for themselves very quickly.

    Don’t we call that R.O.I. justified?

  10. Mark Graban says

    Sure positive ROI is fine, but what is the payback period? If you’re so strapped for cash (As Toyota was after WWII), you don’t have the cash to put out to get that positive ROI eventually (you have to have money to make money). It really pushes you, in any kaizen context, to think “how can we do this without spending money.” Your solution wasn’t a bad one, Bill.

  11. Matt May says

    To all those thinking this isn’t real world (read, Anonymous), think again. The health club is in Los Angeles. All I did was retell the story. So congratulate yourself on dowgrading and satisficing. You gave up. Try reading the manifesto!

  12. Ralf says

    Hi folks,

    for it is interesting to see that the questioin raised quite a lot of comments. That means lots of us -more than ever before, as far as I know- have put their ideas on the blog.

    My tip would be the stainless steel case (you are right, pretty expensive in the beginning), German Railways does that in their night trains where they have showers and the shampoo is stored in such cases right in the shower.

    That’s great because that shows that a process about finding a reasonable solution for the problem is going on (also if someone is skipping out of the discussion telling the others why).

    Coming back from a System Dynamics Conference just a week ago the solution or -better root cause- finding process is one of the most precious processes companies, organizations and societies (in general) have to relearn.

    The next step of the theft of shampoo bootles gives feedback to the owner and customers alike. Most likely forcing the owner to eliminate the service because it gets too cost intensive and the customers cutting back their happiness about the club as they don’t get the given service (shampoo) anymore.

    That’s feedback that comes back on the system that exists of the owner, the customers and the service is resulting even in other problem one doesn’t face or see today, but with a time lag in the future (similar things happen in production areas where service or manpower is cut down due to reaching cost/profit goals given by the public, the stakeholders or internal rivaleries. BUT in the LONG RUN this kicks right back as one has to consider a closed system where everything is connected to each other and sometimes even through long time delays).

  13. Ralf says

    Mark, does “zero cost” mean zero cost for just the solution or zero cost in total (compared the cost of lost bottles against the investment in the solution)?

    Makes a big difference in my eyes.

  14. Mark Graban says

    I think what Matt was going for was that the ideal perfect (“elegant”) solution would be 100% effective at zero cost.

    There is a solution that’s zero cost and most likely 100% effective. I wasn’t clever enough to think of it, but it’s in Matt’s piece if you read it.

  15. Pete Abilla says

    Good stuff, Mark.

    I share my own case interview question, based on a real-world engagement I was in several years ago:

    A Lean Case Interview

  16. arun says

    Here’s my solution:

    I would increase the membership fee
    with nominal amount and provide one bottle of shampoo for each member. And I would put a sign ” Did you like the shampoo? You can get one at the front desk”

  17. Mark Graban says

    Arun, I don’t think that solution qualifies, since it’s a burden on the patron. They’ll have to store their own bottle in a locker? That’s not an altogether unworkable solution, but it doesn’t meet Matt’s criteria, I think.

  18. Barry says

    This solution would not be 100% effective (neither would the stainless steel dispensers BTW), but you could just remove the caps from the shampoo bottles. Zero cost, since you throw away the caps when you put them in the showers.

    It’s not 100% effective, because thrifty customers with low morals would bring in their own caps (or containers).

  19. sarah says

    I would think : remove the caps from the bottles in the showers.
    the it is less likely customers would go away with it.

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