Quality Education in the Benedictine Tradition.


Saint Vincent College Faculty Blog

Problem Solving: Start at the Source

Posted by Michael Urick on Wed, Apr 3, 2019 @ 12:04 PM

Recently, Dr. Gail Fairhurst (a friend, mentor and colleague of mine from the University of Cincinnati) visited Saint Vincent to give a guest lecture on her research. While her comments were primarily about how to be an effective leader through focusing on communication style, she also talked about the nature of problems that leaders must solve. I am reminded of some research of hers that I read in which she identifies problems as “wicked” when they are challenging to describe, difficult to solve and closely related to other problems. She and her colleagues term these to be problem “knots” because they are often tangled together in such a way that multiple problems relate to, confuse and add to each other (Sheep, Fairhurst, & Khazanchi, 2017).

But, even wicked and tangled problem knots can start to be unraveled when we go to the source of where a problem occurs. As Dr. Abbot Maginnis (one of my colleagues at the University of Kentucky’s True Lean Center) would state, going to the source of a problem is the most important first step to problem-solving and it is crucial to continuous improvement initiatives.

Let me give an example. Recently, some researchers from other higher education institutions and I were having an argument over email about a project on which we were collaborating. We went back and forth arguing because of a miscommunication – one of my colleagues had misinterpreted something I typed and our conflict escalated over the next few days as we sent messages back and forth. In this case, going to the source would have meant going back to our first email and having a phone conversation (since we live far away from each other, face-to-face interaction was not practical) to better articulate our points to identify and explain our misunderstanding.

Big Dog Little DogSuch a recommendation is as simple as it sounds. In fact, it’s so simple that it is the moral of the story of a young children’s book (which happens to be one of my baby’s favorites). In “Big Dog…Little Dog” (Eastman, 2010), Fred and Ted are two dogs that get tired after a long day of skiing and ice skating. They find a small hotel but cannot sleep that night. In the “big dog’s” room is a bed that’s too small while in the “little dog’s” room is a bed that’s too big. When they are both tired the next day due to lack of sleep, a bird who looked through both windows (i.e., was at the source of the problem) suggests that they trade rooms/beds. In his final statement, the bird says “Big dogs need big beds and little dogs need little beds. Why make big problems out of little problems?”

This is a very challenging question to each of us. Sometimes we make our problems larger than what they need to be because we don’t truly understand them. We don’t go back to the source where they first occurred. Maybe this prevents us from communicating effectively as in my example above. Maybe this results in quality issues in a manufacturing process. Regardless of the type of problem, going to the source to examine more closely how and why the problem has occurred is crucial. In an Operational Excellence/Lean context, this is related to identifying the “root cause.”

In closing, going to the source of the problem is helpful in determining the root cause. The concept is that we cannot solve a problem unless we can understand it by going to see the issues firsthand. This is potentially useful in many aspects of life from school, to work, to our personal daily routines and interactions.

Do you see the usefulness in going to the source of a problem? Have you ever found a time when going to see the problem firsthand was especially helpful? What are some of your most effective techniques for problem-solving? I’m looking forward to hearing from you! Email me at michael.urick@stvincent.edu, message me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/urickmj/) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-urick-05b775a3/) or leave me a comment below.


Dr. Mike Urick


Eastman, P. D. (2010). Big dog... little dog. Random House Books for Young Readers.

Sheep, M. L., Fairhurst, G. T., & Khazanchi, S. (2017). Knots in the discourse of innovation: Investigating multiple tensions in a reacquired spin-off. Organization Studies, 38(3-4), 463-488.

Topics: Faculty, problem solving, Michael Urick, SVC faculty, saint vincent faculty, professor, saint vincent professor, st. vincent professor, Faculty Blog, mike urick, Dr. Mike Urick

About the Authors

Michelle Gil-Montero is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Saint Vincent College. She runs the visiting writers series on campus, oversees the student literary magazine, and serves as guru to aspiring poets on campus. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2007, and she has been on the Saint Vincent faculty since that year. She is an active poet and literary translator from Spanish. She is spending part of the 2016-17 school year travelling to Argentina on a Howard Foundation fellowship and Fulbright grant. 

Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January 2008. Dr. Smetanka has taught courses in Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry and Geology as well as interdisciplinary seminars. He has published scientific research articles in physics and astrophysics journals, numerous conference proceedings and also works in science education reform and the interaction between science, technology and theology.

Jim Kellam is an associate professor of biology at Saint Vincent College and our resident ornithologist. He received his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 2003, and is taking this semester as a sabbatical. What does that mean? He'll explain in his blog posts.

Dr. Michael J. Urick is Graduate Director of the Master of Science in Management: Operational Excellence program, and Associate Professor of Management and Operational Excellence at the Alex G. McKenna School of Business, Economics, and Government. Dr. Urick teaches courses related to organizational behavior, human resources, culture, leadership, diversity, conflict, supply chain, operations and research methods. Professionally, Urick serves on the board of the Institute for Supply Management (Pittsburgh) and belongs to the Society for Human Resource Management and APICS. For fun, Urick enjoys music and, since 1998, has led and performed with Neon Swing X-perience, a jazz band that has released multiple albums and toured portions of the US. He enjoys watching movies, is an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction, and also likes to fence.

David Safin, C'00, has been a lecturer in the communication department since the Fall of 2003, and has served in a variety of administrative roles since the summer of 2004. Currently, he teaches multimedia in the communication department as an assistant professor. 

Dr. Michael Krom received his Doctorate in philosophy at Emory University in 2007 and is currently the chair of the philosophy department at Saint Vincent. He has authored a book on religion and politics and continues to publish works in Catholic moral and political thought. Dr. Krom also directs the Faith and Reason summer program every summer. 

Subscribe via E-mail

Schedule a visit today

Request Information

Apply now to become a bearcat

Latest Posts

Join the Community