Solving a problem

Problem-solving is a skill. Like all skills, it can be learned. This means there’s an amateurish way and a skilled way to solve any problem.

One often-cited authority on problem-solving is How to Solve It, which primarily concerns itself with mathematical proofs but has wider applications. Its main premise is there’s a framework we can follow when approaching a tough problem with a logical solution. However, the book doesn’t directly address how to solve problems involving people. I believe that while trickier, we actually can apply a framework to solve such problems.

To that end, I’d like to talk about signage.

The office manager at the coworking space in which I work is at a loss. The office staff, every week, sends out an Announcements & Updates email in which they lay out all the events happening that week. “We are hosting X and Y meetups this week on Thursday and Friday, so please be aware. The building maintenance will be fixing A, B, and C, so you may hear some noise. We’ll have a fire drill on Tuesday.” And so on. You get the point. These emails are written in a tone of, “Let’s have fun and work hard this week!” Each email contains at least one reference to a 90s TV show and two GIFs to illustrate the announcements being made.

At the bottom of every email, they remind everyone about some points of office etiquette that they feel should be observed. One of these points is loading the dishwasher. Basically, they want everyone who uses a communal dish or silverware to please rinse it and load it into the dishwasher rather than leave it in the sink.

Despite the emails, office staff keeps finding dishes in the sink every day. They take to Slack and send a message to @everyone reminding us that dishes go in the dishwasher. These messages often contain a photo in an effort to shame the offender. But still, people don’t listen.

Every week, the emails sound more and more frustrated. The language has been becoming increasingly passive-aggressive, and sometimes, overtly aggressive. The staff is at wit’s end — why doesn’t anyone listen? Who would be so inconsiderate that after repeated pleading, shaming, and half-joking threats, that they don’t load the dishwasher? I have a theory.

You see, there are no signs near the sink to tell people they’re supposed to load the dishwasher. My theory is whoever’s leaving items in the sink is one of these two types:

  • People who don’t know they’re supposed to load dirty dishes into the dishwasher.
  • People who know but don’t care.

Who, in spite of repeated email and Slack reminders, wouldn’t know they’re supposed to load the dishwasher? People who don’t read the weekly emails and don’t sign in to the coworking space’s Slack team. The office staff is so locked in to the idea that the weekly email and the Slack team are important that they haven’t stopped to consider that it’s only a very small aspect of most people’s work days in this space. What the office staff spends all day thinking about is toward the bottom of most people’s list of priorities and obligations. They simply may not care about the lengthy weekly emails with multiple GIFs. At least, they may not care enough to read to the bottom where the etiquette reminders usually are.

This can be remedied with a sign near the sink to remind people to load the dishwasher. Because the dishwasher is closed, all a person sees is either an empty sink or a sink with a few dishes already in it. If they opened the dishwasher, they’d see that most people load their dishes into it and the few dishes that lay in the sink are outliers. Literally.

What about the people who know but don’t care? This problem is trickier.

Here’s a Wikipedia article about the Broken Windows theory. The idea is that anti-social behavior is more likely to happen if the perpetrator observes that an environment already shows signs of previous anti-social behavior. The illustrative example is that a person is more likely to litter in front of a building that has broken windows. It’s a controversial theory with a lot of damaging policing history stemming from it, but I believe the basic idea makes sense at least in the small scale.

When someone sees a dirty dish in the sink, they are more likely to leave a second dirty dish in the sink.

This is why the signs need to be more thoughtful. “Don’t leave dishes in the sink” may not be enough in this case. I believe the signs should have a social component to it. In hotels, signage that encourages social norms have much more impact than signs that shame people into doing the right thing: Changing Minds and Changing Towels

We found that by simply changing a few words on the standard sign, guests who learned that the majority of their fellow guests had reused their towels (the social norms appeal) were 26% more likely than those who saw the basic environmental protection message to recycle their towels.

Maybe a sign that looks like this may be more effective:

Please rinse your dish and load it into the dishwasher. 79 out of 82 people who work in this office load their dirty dishes into the dishwasher.

I think we can do even better. I believe that if we push the social aspect of this sign even more, we’d see better results. People respond to one-on-one connections more than they respond to cold, hard statistics. How do you reduce prejudice toward transgender people? This new study explains. - The Washington Post

A single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months.

Knowing that a living, breathing person is on the receiving end of your thoughts and actions has a significant impact on the way you conduct yourself. With that in mind, here’s my idea for a sign:

Please rinse your dish and load it into the dishwasher. 79 out of 82 people in the office do this. When you leave a dish in the sink, our office staff is forced to wash your dish for you.

With some effective graphic design, a lamination process, and prominent placement near the sink, I believe this sign can solve the dish problem.

Let’s review.

First, we started with a problem with the way people behave in a community. Namely, some members of the community don’t follow a rule. We ask ourselves: what’s the context here? What is our hypothesis to explain why they don’t follow the rules? We come up with some ideas. We brainstorm some solutions that would address those possible issues.

The next step is to implement these ideas if they can be done cheaply. We have to implement them especially if they are easily reversible, which most solutions are. Then, we gather data to enhance our view of the context. Then, we restart the whole process with the new data.

Problem-solving is a skill. It can be a framework into which you plug circumstances, even if they are social in nature. It is learnable, and you can get better at it with practice.