Analogous problem solving and Children’s of Alabama

I first heard the term ‘analogous problem solving’ when I visited IDEO. The premise is simple – find an analogous problem to the one you are trying to solve. Inspect this problem and see how others have solved it (or come up with a new solution yourself) and see if you can draw insights from the solution of the analogous problem.

Here’s the example that IDEO provided. The firm was hired to help enhance/redesign emergency room procedures for a hospital. After spending some time trying to empathize and define the problem, the IDEO team realized they were stuck and that they could benefit from studying an analogous problem. So what analogous problem did they pick? NASCAR pit crews. They spent a few weeks studying the setup of pit crews. How they position the essential tools. How they prep for the incoming car. How they communicate with each other when the car is in the pit. How they divide tasks…and so on and so forth. Analogous problem solving led IDEO to some breakthroughs in the project.

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Now that you better understand the premise of analogous problem solving, I wanted to share with you a beautiful example that is found right here in Birmingham, AL. This past fall, I had the pleasure of hearing from Mike McDevitt, the EVP of facilities and technology of Children’s Hospital of Alabama.

As you can see from the picture above, the outside of the building is stunning, but what struck me from Mike’s talk how he solved a problem common to most hospitals – way finding. i.e. how do I find my way from the parking deck to the emergency room? where is the cafeteria? etc.

So how did Mike try to solve this problem? What analogous problem did he look into for insight? He went to Disney World. There are several large parks and Disney wants to make sure that you know where you are going. Mike saw how Disney deals with this issue – they have a main street. If you stay on main street, you will go past all the major attractions. Also,  Disney has the concept of off-stage and on-stage. Things that are on-stage are bright and loud – contrasted with off-stage, where the paint colors are more subdued and you’re likely to find goofy on a smoke break. If you go off-stage at Disney, you know it.

Mike came back and infused the same elements into the design of the new Russell campus at Children’s. Look at the picture below – the river guides patients, parents and staff through the hospital (like main street). The red dot let’s you know that you’ll find information and the colors are bright and vibrant. Having seen the nurses stations, I can tell you the vibe is very different. You are no longer on the river. The colors are more bland. There is an on-stage and an off-stage – just like at Disney.

If you are interested in hearing more of Mike’s talk, check it out here. I will warn you, that the video quality isn’t great, but Mike tells first hand about how this beautiful facility came to be. It’s is a great story and has been a inspiration for me.

Just as way-finding at Disney was an analogous problem for Mike, I am inspired by Mike’s design of Children’s of AL. A hospital can be complicated and difficult to find your way around. When you get to the hospital you are probably stressed – something is wrong. Is it too much of a stretch to say that arriving at a hospital is a good analogy for reading your insurance contract or trying to file an insurance claim? I’m looking Mike’s work to help us to simplify everything at Protective Life.

Do you have a tough problem you are trying to solve? Are you stuck and looking for fresh insights that may lead to a solution? If so, try and spend some time thinking of an analogous problem.


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