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  • Ganesh Balasubramanian

Big problems? Small Solutions!

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

Businesses often face multiple operational challenges and managers have to take decisions to tackle them. While some decisions are tactical and mitigate the problem (or in many cases the symptoms) in the short term, many are decisions are strategic and should ideally solve the problem in the long term. It is natural that in many cases the decisions go wrong or provide a counter-intuitive outcome. Nevertheless, a responsible manager cannot shy away from taking action to solve such operational challenges.

The solutions to some problems are so apparent that the decision-maker fails to invest time in thinking for an alternate simpler solution. It is indeed possible that some big problems have simple solutions. These simple solutions are often overlooked as they entail an unconventional approach. Evidently, until proven, such approaches are tough to justify to the top management. The purpose of this article is to elucidate three cases from different industries where big problems were solved with small but rather unconventional solutions.

Case 1: The elevator speed problem

At the beginning of the industrial age, when elevators were first introduced in commercial buildings, people were constantly complaining about elevators being “too slow”. The first and obvious response of any elevator company would have been to fix the problem by designing fast elevators. But, some engineers (in some firms) approached the problem from a different perspective. Is the problem really with the machine or with men (women) inside the machine? The real problem is not that elevators are slow, but “people think, elevators are slow”. In that case, the solution should focus on the people inside elevators. Hence, firms started making elevators fitted with large mirrors. Thus, people started focusing on their looks, hair, and tie instead of looking at a wall and worrying about safety. This changed their perception of time spent inside the elevator. Surprisingly, the idea clicked and many companies started putting mirrors inside elevators. Consumer perception surveys at the time proved that people considered the new elevators (with mirrors) to be much faster compared to the old ones (without the mirror) even though the speed was the same.

Case 2: Fly in the toilet – A case from Schiphol Airport

Cleaning costs account for a substantial percentage of hygiene maintenance budgets in public places such as airports and railway stations. A reduction in spillage can thus save a noticeable amount of money from cleaning budgets every year. Sanitary-ware designers, especially urinal designers, have relentlessly tried to solve the problem of ‘splashback’ (spillage of urine). Some commonly adopted solutions are anti-spillage screens, rubber floormats, and unique designs that reduce spillage. Interestingly, in the 1990s, Jos van Bedaf, manager of the cleaning department at the Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, came up with a unique and unconventional idea – “an etched image of a fly in the men’s urinals”. The idea was to provide a target for men to direct the urine stream so that spillage is reduced. Its success relied on the simple psychology of men. According to Klaus Reichardt, the man who invented the waterless urinal system, “guys are simple-minded and love to play with their urine stream, so you put something in the toilet bowl and they’ll aim at that”. As ridiculous as it might sound, this idea was implemented in the airport and it helped to reduce spillage by about 80%. Men’s urinals occupied approximately 10% of the public toilet space. Thus, an eighty percent reduction in spillage translates to a saving of about 8% of the total budget for cleaning toilets.

Case 3: Transit damage – It’s an image issue!

Vanmoof is a Netherlands-based bike manufacturing company. The firm is widely revered for its minimalist design and takes pride in its in-house design and manufacturing. The firm sells 80% of its bikes online and directly ships them to its customers worldwide. Its big problem to tackle was transit damage, which is expensive for the firm and annoying for the customers. The firm tried many commonly adopted solutions such as tougher boxes, better packaging, and different shipping partners to solve this problem. Nothing seemed to solve the issue. Eventually, Ties Carlier (co-founder) came up with an unconventional idea. According to him, the size of a bike package almost matches the size of a big flat-screen TV. However, shipping handlers did not give the same care given to flat-screen TVs while handling bike packages. Hence, the bike manufacturing firm started putting the image of a flat-screen TV on every box. This 'tv-bike box' idea worked like magic to the extent that the firm’s shipping damages dropped by 70-80%. While this solution proved to be the most effective, it costed almost nothing when compared to the other approaches. Hence, Big problems, small solutions!


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