A systematic approach to solving issues and achieving goals is ideal. But in addition to having a project’s broad goals in mind and key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics, another level of analysis has questions or bites. By using these smaller bites, one can quantitatively assess performance and then apply improvement changes.

How to Solve a Large Problem

The first part of an old African proverb asks: How does one eat an elephant? The question is a metaphor and can be rephrased, as to, how does one solve an immense problem or task? The metaphor’s second part is up to the person being questioned to answer. Multiple answers are given, such as one bite at a time, cut the pachyderm into little pieces, with the help of others, etc. In my view, the best way to “eat an elephant,” aka solve a large problem, is to:

  1. Understand the issue.
  2. Divide it into smaller steps.
  3. Go further into questioning process and KPIs causes by adding small bites or questions.
  4. Monitor the changes and improvements derived from the bites.

So, first, one must truly understand the problem to be fixed or goal to be accomplished. This is the big picture or 10,000-foot view. This is also what your boss and executives relate to. A universal business example is meeting (or exceeding) sales quotas. The supervisor or sales manager has listed KPIs and metrics for each of the sales personnel. Four common KPIs per set amount of time can be the:

  1. Total number of sales calls
  2. Number of successful sales calls
  3. Ratio of successful calls to total calls
  4. Total revenue that each salesperson brings in

Note: The revenue metric is the big elephant and the one that executives and finance people look at.

Consider Salesman A

Salesman A may use a scorecard of customer calls and actual sales as his KPIs, in addition to total sales. Nothing is wrong with this standard sales metric approach. However, what Salesman A lacks is how to distinguish why he had successful and unsuccessful sales calls. He only has successful/unsuccessful or Go/No Go metrics. For more sales, Salesperson A can make more calls, but I contend that using his same approach, the percentage of successful calls will probably be the same. The amount of calls will also be limited by factors:

  • Number of customers in that industry
  • Limited calls during working and after-work hours
  • Other needed work like travel, paperwork and meetings

Consider Saleswoman B

Saleswoman B has another approach. She understands that revenue is the goal and her sales calls are the means to get sales. Saleswomen B goes further than Salesman A by dividing KPIs into smaller process bites. The bites are in the form of systematic questions:

  • Did the potential customer take her call?
  • Did the person listen to her 20-second spiel about the product, their needs and how the product fit those needs?
  • Did the customer ask questions about the product? What were they?
  • Did other customers answer in a similar way? What does the customer actually want? Did she answer the customer’s questions?
  • Is there a follow-up call, meeting or emailing of product data?
  • Is there agreement to a follow-up call?

Saleswoman B looks for the process bottleneck. For example, she may observe that many customers cutting her off after a few minutes or hang-up during her spiel. She takes note of this problematic process step. Upon reflection, she may find that her words aren’t articulate enough or she needs to understand the customer’s needs more and relate them to the products. She can also practice her talk with the company’s lead salesperson and get their input and advice. In these ways, Saleswoman B is looking at the drivers for each process step behind the KPIs, sees where she is doing well and where improvement is needed, and then acts to fill and monitor the gaps. She is course-correcting and determining how to improve her performance. In other words, she is doing an analytical self-evaluation and using that data to change her behavior to increase sales percentage and revenue.

Additional Examples

Other examples include new product development and continuous improvement programs. The goal for those programs is to create new products and processes. The programs that are thought out with SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goals, KPIs, management buy-in, funding and resources have a good chance of success. Programs that use bites have an even better chance of success.

One continuous improvement goal may be decreasing a machine’s downtime, so it is more productive. KPIs and metrics can include percentage downtime, product rate and quality, and operator availability and experience. Some bite questions may be:

  • What are the causes of machine breakage (maybe look to an Ishikawa fishbone diagram)?
  • When does the machine break-down?
  • Is stoppage operator related?
  • What are the factors in the breakdown? (For example, overheating, run rate, wearing out of parts, contaminates in machine, shifts and shift changes, start-up issues, weather or environmental conditions and lack of maintenance.)

Once the bites are known and addressed, they can be monitored and evaluated for effectiveness. Then changes can take effect, and down time can further be monitored for improvement. This systematic process is in-line with the PDCA (plan, do, check, act) cycle that supports continuous improvement and problem resolution.

Bryson DeChambeau

The final example involves Bryson DeChambeau’s golf game. Bryson is a professional golfer who wanted to improve  his golf game. Over the last year, including when the COVID-19 lock down was occurring, Bryson was implementing a plan to improve his golf game and do better in tournaments – and preferably win more (goal). He already had KPIs and metrics in place, which included amount and type of club swings and resulting distance, direction and placement of where his ball landed. Where Bryson set himself apart from other golfers is that he came up with bites to understand the underlying reasons how he golfed and how he could improve. The bites (probably) included: How can he drive the ball further? What needs to be done to putt better? How do course and holes relate to shot selection?

DeChambeau addressed the bites. He met with a bio-mechanist. (A bio-mechanist analyzes the effects of forces on and exerted by a body, and works on practical solutions to improve performance. The performance can be improved physical attainment or prevention of injury.) For DeChambeau’s height and using golf swing physics, it was determined that he could improve his drives by bulking up and increasing the length of his driver. DeChambeau followed that advice and gained 50 pounds of mass. His driver was customized and increased by two inches, for a total length of 48 inches. After those changes, Bryson was driving a golf ball on average of 370 yards, with a long drive at 403 yards. His drives on average are ~50 yards further than his competitors and even his previous drives of 2019! He also had statisticians and scientists analyze the topography of golf courses and the effects of weather, forming game plans on how best to play each hole. DeChambeau also spent countless hours putting and improving his short game.

“You have to admire his work ethic,” analyst Paul Azinger said on a Golf Channel broadcast. “I mean, everything Bryson does is with a purpose, and he’s converged math and science, and he’s put this physical body with this math and science. He’s launching at a trajectory with an amount of spin and speed that is giving him this 400 yards.”

DeChambeau came in tied for 34th in the Master’s Tournament of 2020. Part of that was attributed to losing a hard-hit ball into the swampy Georgia mud, and not shooting straight. This proves that golf is still a game of skill and luck, but power does help. You can bet that Bryson will have new bites, like: “How can I drive straighter?” and “How can I have better control?” He increased his power game, now he has to control it. Don’t be surprised to see Bryson DeChambeau on top of the leader boards for 2021, as he is taking care of his elephant.

Lastly, the systematic approach for eating an elephant can be applied to many areas (e.g., personal development – diets in both losing and gaining weight, increased physical fitness activity, and sports; business – sales, marketing, production and R&D; and learning). So, the next time you are assigned a mammoth problem, think about the big picture, know your KPIs and metrics, then set yourself apart by creating your own bites and put them to use to solve the issue.

Stay safe and prosper!

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