Sometimes It’s the Smallest of Things that Cause Big Problems

It can take three (3) hours to travel to the hot spring pools of Los Baños, Laguna in the Philippines. Authorities have invested millions of dollars in improving the highway’s infrastructure but motorists still complain about the long travel time.  At one intersection of the highway leading into the town, a lone traffic cop stops traffic twenty (20) minutes at a time for each side.  The queue of vehicles builds up and it can take up to an hour just waiting to cross the intersection. The Los Baños local government finally installed a traffic light to improve vehicular flow.    

In 1999, the United States’ National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) lost a USD$ 125 million probe to the planet Mars because ‘because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used English units of measurement while the agency’s team used the more conventional metric system for a key spacecraft operation.’  The probe, the Mars Climate Orbiter, was at the end of its 286-day journey and was in the process of putting itself into orbit around the red planet.  The wrong calculations inputted to the probe forced it into the wrong position, causing malfunctions in its propulsion system.  NASA lost contact with the probe which probably bounced from the Mars atmosphere and headed towards the Sun. 

Many times, it’s the small things that cause the big problems.  Address the small things and chances are the problems will be solved outright. 

Yet, many corporations and organisations miss the small things. They hire highly paid engineers and consultants who recommend expensively sweeping solutions such as replacing old machines with new ones, installing an integrated information system, or re-structuring the enterprise’s organisation. 

Small causes often require easy solutions.  There will of course be some work to set up any solution, such as purchase & installation of needed equipment, education & training, and testing.  But it’s likely that the solution involved won’t be major in expenditure in terms of cost and time. 

At an energy company I was a consultant for, supervisors at the company’s geothermal power control room complained that executives were slow in approving new automated valves needed to control the flow of steam from underground wells & pipes to the power plant’s turbines.  Supervisors were forced to drive to the wells to manually turn valves on or off to regulate steam output.  Executives didn’t see the importance of new automated valves but they’d complain how come steam-to-power energy yields were not meeting targets and why expenses for overtime and diesel fuel were over budget.

And that’s why many small causes aren’t addressed and problems solved immediately.  We don’t see.  We don’t walk around.  We don’t ask.  We don’t delve into the causes.

Many small causes can also be fixed, if not prevented, if managers have sufficient autonomy and authority to fix them.  Some of us who are executives place too many limits on managers such as needing approval to buy critical parts, to proceed in the repair of an equipment, or to give assignments to workers. 

Enterprises encounter problems all the time.  Few are crises; many are rooted in small causes, such as a not-well-trained traffic cop or an error in calculations for a space probe.  Problems with small causes are more often than not easily and quickly solvable, albeit some investment in time and resources may sometimes be needed.

For various reasons, we pursue complicated strategies to solve problems caused by small things.  We fail to see the real reasons behind many problems.  We in turn become more the cause to the festering of problems and crises in organisations. 

We would do well to go back to basics when it comes to management.  We should walk around, see things for ourselves, and delegate many issues to the staff we hired to trust in the first place. 

About Ellery’s Essays

Published by Ellery

Since I started blogging in 2019, I've written personal insights about supply chains, operations management, & industrial engineering. I have also delved in topics that cover how we deal with people, property, and service providers. My mission is to boost productivity via offering solutions and ideas. If you like what I write or disagree with what I say, feel free to like, dislike, comment, or if you have a lengthy discourse, email me at ; I'm also on LinkedIn:

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