Problem Framing and choice of adjectives – story of ventilators and sanitizers

Problem Framing is considered a crucial step in the development of a new solution/product or in problem solving.

Yet, we miss spending enough quality time on this step, many a times.

Disclaimer: I will be over-simplifying a few aspects, to drive home the key point so please humor me.

Since early March, as the Corona virus spread to Europe and other countries in Asia/Americas, there was a lot of noise around two things.

Or rather lot of noise around the shortage of two things – hand sanitizers and ventilators.

In India, sanitizers were completely sold-out, thanks to panic buying and stocking up.

The demand for ventilators was projected basis the statistics in Italy and it was obvious that we did not have enough ventilators for the population. Even if one assumed that 1-2% of the infected population would need ventilators, there weren’t enough ventilators.

Not just India, it was the same case in UK, USA and most other countries.

If you read the news, or noticed your Linkedin or Twitter feed, it seemed the problem statement was:

We need more hand sanitizers and ventilators,  fast !

Within a few weeks, there were many solutions popping up.

Hand sanitizers made at home, being made by FMCG companies etc.

For ventilators, multiple paths were being proposed and explored:

Decathlon's 3D printed Scuba mask ventilator
Decathlon’s 3D printed Scuba mask ventilator

I was inspired by the determination by so many, to find a solution to the ventilator scarcity challenge. It was a phase, when I would spend almost 20-30 minutes looking at the new solutions and being amazed by the interesting paths taken by these innovators and tinkerers.

And then I read a Linkedin post that really shook me. (sorry – missed taking a screenshot )

It was from a doc, who asked a simple question to the ventilator innovators – he asked if the innovators would be willing to bet their own lives on an untested ventilator. He went on to say, the problem is not that we need a new design for ventilators, we need a higher supply of reliable/tested ventilators. Ventilators that medical teams are trained to use.

The problem framing for ventilators really was more like:

We need a higher supply of reliable ventilators. Fast.

Reading that post, it was clear that the challenge wasn’t so much about a new, easy-to-manufacture design but more about ensuring a faster supply of reliable ventilators. Reliability was non-negotiable. And most of us missed this in the early phase.

Many who co-created their solutions with medical practitioners, ensured that reliability wasn’t compromised.

This article, talks about it in the context of the UK:

Here, in the U.K., the government rather botched the whole ventilator thing quite royally. Instead of doing what industry leaders had suggested to the government, which was to repurpose factories to make ventilators using existing plans from ventilator manufacturers under license, the U.K. government took a different approach.

Boris Johnson hosted a call with 60 captains of industry from the U.K. — household names like JCB, Rolls-Royce, Airbus, Honda — and the focus was on making something from scratch from the bottom up. As has so often been the case with this virus, military metaphors were drawn. It would be a crowning moment in British manufacturing, akin to the Spitfire during the Second World War.

Medical advisors said, “Okay, but we don’t need those basic bag-and-a-bottle pumpjack machines. We need the product to be fit for purpose.” But it soon became apparent that what was being proposed was woefully under-equipped to meet what was needed. Instead of listening to experts, British politicians had felt that they understood the problem better and tasked people with a proven track record in an entirely unrelated field, the job of solving the problem.

The sanitizers on the other hand, didn’t have such bottlenecks. You could make your own at home too.

The key lesson I learnt observing this unfold, was to pay very close attention to adjectives in the problem framing stage.

Key adjectives for the desired solution were slightly different for ventilators vs sanitizers, yet making a world of difference:

  • ventilators : reliable (non-negotiable), low-cost, high-capacity
  • sanitizers : low-cost, high-capacity

So, how do we ensure we have an accurate framing of the problem? Some ideas include:

  • Get the key stakeholders (e.g. medical practitioners in the case of ventilators) involved in the early stages of problem-solving and solution-design. Co-create if possible. They will catch the missing adjectives
  • Define the conditions of satisfaction – again vetted by the user/stakeholder and not just the interpretation of the innovator
  • “Watch” the existing solutions in action. It is one thing to read about what a ventilator is and another to witness it in action in an ICU. One would know the stakes involved.
  • Slow down. As an engineer, I have witnessed the inherent nature of my mind to jump into the solution mode. This adrenaline surge that comes from building something new, or solving a problem, takes us away from spending enough time asking ” do we really know what the problem is

Talpiot – Israel’s super school for military tech – lessons in sustainable innovation

Talpiot – the Super School

I have always wondered how has Israel, given its challenges, managed to position itself as a leader in cutting-edge military tech. And it seems the answer lied in the months and years that followed Yom Kippur War.

Specifically the creation of the Talpiot Program within the IDF.

I just chanced upon Israel’s Edge: The Story of the IDF’s Most Elite Unit – Talpiot on Kindle and I was hooked on to the book from the very first chapter.

So what is the Talpiot Program?

Talpiot is this super elite, highly secretive unit within the Israeli Defence Force which hires geeks – the ones who have an unusual acumen in maths, science and computers. And not just any geeks, geeks who could work together to take on impossible challenges. The ones who have strong leadership skills and the mental and physical ability to endure even a paratroopers course.

And what does a Talpiot graduate do ?

They say each Talpiot graduate can potentially make a 1% contribution to the battle !

Now, that’s a really bold claim by any measure.

But then again, its hard to imagine that the Iron Dome ( and its other avatars – David’s Sling, The Arrow) was first designed and proposed by a group of undergrad students to counter the threat of the incoming rocket attacks on the settlements.

The Program Highlights :

  • The soldiers of Talpiot begin their military service at Hebrew University but are housed separately
  • Study for their bachelor’s of science in physics, mathematics, and computer science,
  • The courses are taught at an accelerated rate, almost 40 % faster
  • Also trained in military strategy and complete an officer’s training course.
  • They spend their summers doing 12 weeks of basic training – the one given to the paratroopers.
  • Talpiot soldiers take special courses rotating with each force of the army: intelligence, navy, and air force – to learn about the weapon systems from the inside. They sit in cockpits of fighter jets and shoot off weaponry to gain a real understanding of its operational and technological needs.
  • During the second year, they devise a project of their own choosing for three months. This is where a lot of early versions of innovative tech has come from. The professors who proposed the Talpiot program insisted that innovation was possible only by young minds !

Talpiot graduates undergo military training alongside their academics, they observe first hand the theater of war, the need for technology to create an edge and how and where they can help.

They master the art of problem solving.

A common theme emerging across multiple graduates that the book interviewed, is that the graduates learnt to take on the impossible projects. That they got trained to not be afraid.

Another Talpiot innovation came from Amir Beker, who turned down medical school to attend the program. During his military service under Talpiot in the late 1980s, Mr. Beker learned that Israeli helicopter pilots were suffering from severe back pain from vibrations during flight. To build a better seat, he first had to determine how to measure the effect of vibrations on the human vertebrae.

Together with a Talpiot classmate, Mr. Beker led a team that installed a custom seat in a helicopter simulator, cutting a hole in its backrest. Training a pen on a pilot’s back, the team used a high- speed camera to photograph the marks caused by a range of vibrations. The researchers analyzed the computerized data to come up with a way to redesign the seats.

Why I am so impressed by the Talpiot program

  1. The story behind its creation – Post the debacle of the Yom Kippur war, it wasn’t just witch-hunting that happened, there was serious soul searching. And it was two profs who articulated what was needed – Israel needed to establish itself as the leader in advanced weaponry.
  2. The clarity of purpose – The Founding profs were clear, that the tech supremacy is not restricted to what weapons their traditional enemy forces have, but what they could get from the super powers. The USSR supplied weapons had led to significant tank losses for the IDF in the crucial war. Till then Israel had considered itself to be highly superior to the Arab armour. The conclusion was that Israel simply have to be better equipped with technology, better than anything else in the world.
  3. Willingness to experiment – Can you imagine two profs walking into a meeting with the defence minister of army chief and suggesting why they should hire geeks and create a new unit? In most countries the defence organization wouldn’t take them seriously. Not so in this case.
  4. Following through with the commitment to support the experiment – Getting access to the best talent was difficult in the early days of Talpiot, since no one knew about it. The young minds obviously wanted to go other elite units wherein the possibility of post army career benefits are much higher. The IDF stood by their commitment to see the program get what it needed – the best minds with most promising leadership skills
  5. Letting the program evolve – As with most new initiatives, the first version is just a rough template for the subsequent ones to follow. The Talpiot program also evolved on multiple fronts – what attributes to look for, how to structure the course, who the instructors should be (most courses now have ex Talpiot graduates mentoring the batch)
  6. Balancing military’s process-discipline with flexibility for nurturing innovation – The course does not prescribe missions or objectives for its graduates. They have the flexibility of choosing what appeals to them. Given that the course exposes them to the realities of each wing of the military, the graduates are able to identify problems on their own. This is probably how you stoke the passion of a young genius. Choose your own problem worth solving.
  7. Flexible career paths – the graduates are free to choose active combat roles or pursue PHDs specializing in their chosen fields or even venture out in the business world. This wide choice of career paths post the extensive Talpiot program ensures that the talent pool is out there creating multiple down-stream ripples. There are some who joined the Air Force and now teach dog-fights to pilots. There are others who have founded billion dollar worth ventures around security/cyber tech and many more went into research.
  8. Development of a feeder eco-system – As the Talpiot program grew in popularity many schools started focusing on training their students to qualify the rough entrance test. This is exactly how IIT coaching evolved, and creates a larger talent pool to tap into.

With so many bschools, governments and companies focused on innovation, am sure there is a lesson or two to be learnt from the Talpiot story.

Find what’s really broken before fixing it

I enjoy coding.

While I have a long way to go as a programmer, coding does put me in a zen kind of a state. The mix of learning and building something new, is almost magical.

It does fuel and inspire the problem solver in me. And it is a great teacher too.

I just learnt that ….

Finding out what is really broken, usually takes more time than fixing it !

Last week, I was trying to fix a bug on a piece of code that was first written few years back. The software itself has undergone multiple iterations and grown in its features and inherent complexity.

I spent almost the whole day digging deeper, going step by step to identify where the error was coming from. This meant tracing the code flow and checking the data integrity at each stage.

Once the exact source of the error was identified, the solution itself was just 2 minutes of code-writing. And then came the critical step of testing the updated code for all the test-cases, before moving it into production.

And as I ended my day and looked back on how my time was spent, it was an eye-opener to problem-solving.

Same is true for medicine also. The doc will suggest a few tests and look at the results to ascertain what really is wrong before suggesting any line of treatment.

SlashEMI’s debt reduction plan infact generates a detailed EMI fitness report, before starting any recommendations.

Note to self – Invest the time to be very sure about what needs fixing. (Problem framing is critical). Focus on fixing what is broken.

Sounds logical and intuitive right?

But do ask yourself how many times have we jumped into the solutioning mode without being sure about the real cause of the problem.

My guess is a little too many times.