August  2013     Edition 94
Solve vs. Resolve

Many problems fall into the category of "something isn't working properly

, or something has failed". One of the Critical Thinking techniques used in this category is finding a root cause. A solution to a root cause enables you to solve the problem ... for good. You can cross it off your to-do list.

There are circumstances however

, when you have to stop or deviate from searching for the cause, and switch to treating the symptoms; sometimes referred to as a "patch" or "chewing gum", or "temporary" fix. This resolves an issue, at least temporarily, although it doesn't solve the issue. Treating symptoms instead of cause is contrary to the popular methodology of "Do it right the first time". Nevertheless, there are times when the cost of finding the cause of a problem may be so great that it makes business sense to just treat the symptoms or the effects of the problem, resolving it, at least temporarily, and not solving the actual problem itself.

Here are few examples,

and then we'll look a way to judge when to switch from finding the cause, i.e. solving, to treating the effects, the symptoms, i.e. resolving.


We strive to find the causes of diseases, but as we look for the causes and subsequent cures, we treat the symptoms. For example, the common cold. Currently, there is no solution to cure colds, so we take "cold medicines" which help alleviate the symptoms. These "medicines" resolve our discomfort.


We've all had the experience of something not working quite right on our computer, with no idea about what is causing it, nor how to fix it. We can't solve the problem. But if we re-boot the machine, the issue often goes away. The cause wasn't addressed, we haven't solved the problem, leaving us vulnerable to repeating this process, but we resolved the issue by re-booting, and can now get our work done.

Home appliances:

Prior to complete failure, many appliances have "issues" that we often live with before replacing them. A little nudge here, or hard bang there, perhaps tightening a screw a little bit more, or stuffing a piece of cardboard to stop a rattle. These are not solutions for the cause, but we resolve the issue by treating the symptom. Isn't that what duct-tape is for?

When should you treat the symptom

to temporarily resolve an issue, rather than continue to search for the cause and solve the issue? There is no formula for that, but here are a few thoughts to help make that judgment call;


Triage is a form of treating the symptom, not the underlining cause. It's an emergency fix for a situation that will most likely get much worse, really fast, if not resolved. If you walk into your home and smell gas, you would be wise to immediately turn off the main gas valve to the house. Later, you might discover that your water heater is the culprit and if you had known that earlier, you might have only had to turn that off ... but in the meantime, you may have prevented an explosion.


: Are the effects of the unknown cause so painful, so costly, so time consuming that the consequence of waiting to treat the symptom is very damaging? We treat unknown medical issues even though the cause is not known. While many of these treatments often have other side effects, or may be only short lived, or only intermittently successful, if we didn't treat these, quality of life for a lot of people would be much worse.

Quick and lasting:

Is the act of addressing the symptom, quick enough, and long lasting enough to make a difference? If all it takes is a piece of cardboard wedged between the two metal pieces to stop a squeak, and it lasts for six months, and doesn't do any damage to the components ... why not?

Damage and Distraction:

Can we treat the symptom now, without significantly impacting or distracting us from finding the cause. An example of this is rebooting your computer. In the process of resolving the issue (treating the symptom), we have potentially destroyed the ability to understand the cause of the problem. This is why those who are responsible for fixing computer issues, say, "Don't touch your machine until I get there!".


When the treatment of symptoms is such that it sufficiently "does the job", and the cost, time, and effort is so significantly less than what it would be to find and/or implement a solution, then consideration must be made to treat the symptoms, and not find and/or implement a solution. We don't repave roads every time there is pot hole. The pot-holes get filled, until such time as the cost and disruption of maintaining the road exceeds that of repaving it. When we manufacture products, we strive for low defective rates; however the cost to create a zero defect manufacturing process is astronomical. As such, organizations resolve this by implementing processes to replace defective parts and products.

The Takeaway:
Ideally, finding and fixing the root cause of a problem is best as it solves the problem ... for good. Sometimes however, the effort to find and fix root cause can take a very long time, with substantial human and economic costs. When reviewing an issue, in parallel with thinking about a permanent solution, consider treating the symptoms in the short term. If that treatment is inexpensive, quick, lasting long enough to make a difference, and can be accomplished with little impact on finding a longer term solution, then it should be seriously considered. There's nothing wrong with a little "patch" to temporarily resolve an issue as you continue to look for the solution.

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