Early Experience with Problem-solving Heuristics

Original motivation for studying theories of problem solving arose from my experience at Ford Motor Company with cloistered fresh eyes teams, CFET (ca. 1975). This brief program involved four events. A different company problem was addressed at each event with different participants. They were selected according to their experience and its relevance to the specific topic to be addressed.This was an exercise in bare-brainstorming; meaning that no crutches were allowed like smart phones and handbooks.

The goal of these exercises was to generate as many solution concepts for a problem as rapidly as possible. These were the first ideas to come to mind and the instant spin-off reactions that accompanied them. No time was given to engineering. That would come later after all ideas were recorded and filtered.

Two memories stand out about this experiment. The first is how well the participants did with team brainstorming. Each session was very productive with fresh ideas. However, the other memory is of how brainstorming began to wane in an hour or so. My analysis of this problem was that we did not have any heuristics for reinvigorating the excitement of problem solving. This experience led eventually to my interest in studying and developing theories of problem solving and heuristics for rapid generation of solution concepts.

Theories of Problem Solving

Scope of writings found here:

A variety of writings are presented, in the several menus above, discussing theories of problem solving. They contain developments in structured problem solving since the mid 20th century. Demonstrations of various heuristics are given. Emphasis is placed on degrees of method from intuitive brainstorming, having no theoretical basis, to rather sophisticated, logical, structured methodologies. My main interest underlying these papers is how the brain solves problems.

Several definitions will help to understand what you can expect to find and what is not to be expected. These definitions include the words problem, solution, heuristic, theory, structure, and logic. Others will be defined as needed.

Theories of Problem Solving for Innovation and Invention

Ed Sickafus

I. Meaning of problem

It occurred to me, in a moment of conscious access (to be explained later), that the title of this essay might best be introduced one word at a time beginning with the meaning of problem. Furthermore, that this is an essay on theories of problem solving for innovation and invention, it seems to require the perspective of the unusual, the unexpected, and the not so obvious. That’s the perspective. The goal eventually is to understand how the brain identifies, analyzes, and solves problems – a model or theory. The strategy unfolds as follows.

Problems can occur at a point where and when one or more objects are in contact. Did I say, “… one or …?” Yes. The tongue of the object person can touch the object’s nose, for example. Thus, a problem has objects, which have location (point of contact), time, and ‘contact’. Given these conditions a problem, to be a problem, has to have an unwanted effect associated with the point of contact. This implies that effects (also called functions) are what points of contact are all about. An unwanted effect is a mal function; i.e., a problem. You can think of function as the reason for the existence of a contact in the first place; i.e., an engineer’s design intent. The word function puts life into the metaphor point-of-contact.

Notice that the words object, point, contact, and function have not been defined. Here’s my spin on those concepts.

Point is a metaphorical simplification of volume, area, line, and time to a tiny spatial or temporal location of mental focus.

Function (or effect) is the existence of change (or its prevention) of attributes of the objects in contact. Multiple functions can occur at the same point of contact.

Attributes characterize objects. They distinguish otherwise identical objects.

Contact (also interaction) is a metaphor for how (and where) one object ‘knows’ the presence of another, which occurs through the interaction of their attributes. This includes action at a distance, such as, resulting from a field (e.g., electric, gravitational, etc.). Radiation from a hot object may cause impurities in a ‘contacting’ object to diffuse modifying the local concentration gradient attribute.

A small hole in two plates in an electrolytic solution and at different potentials, regulate the amount of current flowing between them. When a blood cell passes through the hole, the rate of flow changes and a pulse of current is registered. Voilà! We have a blood-cell counter. The hole and blood cell represent a dimensional scale on the order of 10 microns (10-5 meters).

A book resting on a table constitutes two objects in contact. The function of the table is to localize the book in space and time. The weight of the book interacts, at the point of contact, with the elasticity of the table to counteract the force of gravity that would otherwise destabilize book’s location. Multiple functions and other attributes may be active at the same location with or without other objects – an opportune point of focus for innovation and invention.

So what’s going on at the point of contact; i.e. what’s unique about it? Gravity is not unique. It’s there before, during, and after the interaction. What’s happening is that the elasticity of table, an attribute of table, interacts with the weight (gravitational force) of book, an attribute of book, to stabilize book’s location in space and time. The function (the effect) of the interaction is to counteract gravity. Note, in reverse, object–attribute–function, OAF, more on this later. That is what this two-object interaction was designed to accomplish.

In essence, attributes of objects at a point of contact interact to support a function that changes or stabilizes attributes of an object. Of course objects have many attributes. They distinguish objects form each other. However, not all of their attributes are active (in use) at a given functional contact. Here, in unused attributes, lie potential roots of innovation and invention. By design we can turn on or off attributes to achieve fixes to mal functions and creation of new functions.

So you’re walking past your desk and drop a book on it for later use. However, the book slides off and lands on the floor. That’s a problem situation. Can you find a problem and solution concepts to this problem by turning on and off attributes of these objects? Begin with a point of contact. Identify objects and their active and inactive attributes at your chosen point.

Once an OAF concept has been established there may be opportunities for scaling and invention.

Consider a molecule-size hole, ca. 1 nanometer or 10,000 times smaller than a blood cell. Again add an electrolyte and a potential difference, which together produce an electrophoretic force that can move even a DNA molecule through the hole and thereby count it. (M. Muthukumar, C. Plesa, and C. Dekker, Physics Today, Aug. 2015)

We have arrived at theories of problem solving for innovation and invention.

But wait a minute! There’s more to the definition of a problem than has been covered here. After all a problem does not occur at a point of contact! (That’ll give you pause after reading the above paragraphs.) A point of contact is where a problem situation becomes apparent. Ah ha! ‘Becomes apparent’ is getting closer to a problem.

When our unconscious recognizes an unwanted effect and points it out to our conscious, now we have a problem. This recognition becomes a disturbance on the brain’s neural network that must be attended to instantaneously. The brain, to ascertain whether it is a threat to its homeostasis, must attend quickly to such a disturbance. If not a threat, it becomes a problem that can be dealt with in due, thoughtful time. From this conclusion we infer that a solution is anything that quells a neural net disturbance.

For the moment, I’ll settle for these definitions of a problem situation, a problem, and the latter’s solution. One caveat is needed. Beware the problem situation. Herein may hide multiple problems with complex interactions, an overwhelming mental challenge.

Current technical minds have learned how to tackle a problem situation. First it is identified in its full threatening complexity. Next it is parsed into individual problems. These are then broken down to points of contact of objects. Since we can solve only one problem at a time, the next step is to pick a single point of contact and there to minimize the number of objects to be dealt with, like 3, 2 or even 1 object. Now a single problem is analyzed and multiple solution concepts found using theories of problem solving.

Solution concept needs definition too. Then theories will be defined.

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