Problem Solving

— 3 minute read

When you or your place of employment are trying to solve a problem like:

"That guy always forgets to clean out his coffee cup!"

Typically the response is a sign put up in the lunch room with 14 pixel font (comic sans preferred) stating

"Could everyone please clean out their coffee cups at the end of the day? Thanks. Mngmt."

For a few days everyone, including the original guywhowouldn'tcleanouthiscoffeecup, dutifully clean out their cups.

After a week though Mr. Guywhowouldn'tcleanouthiscoffeecup goes back to his old ways and doesn't clean out his coffee cup.

A meeting of the Admin staff is called and it's agreed that:

  • The font probably wasn't large enough on the original sign. Up it to 20 pixels this time.
  • And maybe instead of making it a question mark at the end it should be an exclamation point.
  • Oh. And if we could put some clip art of a coffee cup so people know what we're talking about.

Sign is posted. Everyone follows through for a few days. Mr. Guywho'ssostupidandstillwon'tcleanouthiscoffeecup starts to falter after a few days. And we're back to where we started. Larger font sizes and fancier clip art. Maybe you have to put a quarter in a jar if you leave a dirty coffee cup. Oh, and this time let's send out an email to the staff reminding them of the coffee cup policy.


Rather than just going and talking to Mr. Guywhowouldn'tcleanouthiscoffeecup directly and dealing with him in person we try and enforce the rules by, in effect, punishing everybody. Which ends up helping nobody.

We see this all around us and just accept it with varying degrees of frustration. The whole software industry (particularly on the Windows site of things) is full of copy protection aimed at stopping the few who pirate by punishing the masses that don't. The same thing goes on in digital music where because of the fear of the few pirates everyone else has to jump through hoops to get the music they've paid for play on the devices of their choice.

I'm sure there's plenty of real world examples but I know of one that I continually am frustrated by. The 7-11 near me has a "pay before you pump" policy due to, presumably, people pumping their cars full of gas and then leaving before paying. So when I go get gas I'm inconvenienced due to the sins of a few. I find it incredibly frustrating to be assumed to be guilty until I'm proven innocent - but even when I am innocent there's no reward for me when I go back to my 7-11. As a result I avoid going to this 7-11 for gas even though it's less than 2 blocks from my house. And when I do go I only get enough gas to get me through the day until I'm somewhere else and can fill up.

Do any recent policies/decisions you've made result in the many being punished for the actions of the few? Is there any way you could change it so that you reward the people for good behaviour instead of lumping them in with the bad apples?

Note: The fictional story in this post is not intended to represent any particular individual. I don't have any issues with anyone not cleaning their coffee cup. Seriously. :)