Olivier Lacan

Software bricoleur, word wrangler, scientific skeptic, and logic lumberjack.

Problem Solvers

Written on December 27, 2012

If there's a common thread uniting all the people that inspire me, motivate me, and who I work with, it's that they're addicted to solving problems.

When I was a kid I thought raising the seat of a bicycle was a tedious process. Tools were still partly within the realm of adults, and carrying tools on a ride didn't make sense to me.

So I took a pencil and a piece of paper and started designing a solution to that problem. It had been solved elsewhere. Nobody takes out a wrench every time they want to raise and lower their office chair. Instead office chairs are built with a hydraulic cylinder that can easily raise and lower, sometimes even while still remaining seated.

I didn't have the skills necessary to make my idea come true, or even to see what could challenge its implementation, but I was using my imagination to try to solve a problem that was very real to me, and certainly to more people in the world.

This was an instance where my ambitions exceeded my abilities, but with maturity, some creative people learn to tame their ambitions and take on simpler problems.

For several summers while I was a teenager I worked as a summer intern in the factoring company my dad worked at in Paris' Central Business District — known as "La Défense". I've always been fascinated by skyscrappers and this was the only place in Paris where skycrappers are allowed to be built (that's another story) so it was a great opportunity to make some money while being surrounded by cool stuff I could take pictures of.

Most summer interns for that company weren't hired because of particular skills, so most of the tasks that were assigned to us were tedious filling tasks. Some enlightened employees did understand that they could benefit from our basic skills by letting us parse through smaller clients and actually lessen their current workload.

Over the course of several mornings I started noticing a strange ritual. Account managers whose specific task was to... manage accounts were spending up to 45 minutes routing external and internal mail that was deposited in a huge pile twice a day in the mail room.

People with a substantially higher salary than mailroom employees were doing the job of mailroom employees, for almost four hours a week, and seemingly for every individual department in the company.

This drove me nuts, and I didn't even work there. It was repetitive, never-ending tedium that no one seemed to rebel against. Worse, each department had a copy/mail room with dozens of unlabelled racks.

The problem was there, in front of everyone, every day, and the solution was starring them in the face. In fit of "trouble making", I spent an entire morning doing a census of all the employees on my floor, asked them the volume of mail they usually received every day (to gauge the rack space they might require) and tried to figure out how to designate any "catch-all" inboxes for mail without a specific receiver.

Better yet, I established an index of which companies belonged to which account manager to ensure that the mail people could figure out that an envelope with a "Sofradec" logo should go straight to Michel Denis.

I then printed labels in a very legible font (either Helvetica or the company's slab font) and taped each rack in the mail room with the name of its rightful owner.

Reactions were a mix of boredom and amazement (yep...) and within a few days, the mail distribution rotations were reduced to a mere 5 minutes. I was elated, because I made people's lives a little less repetitive. I don't know if the system lasted, was replaced or improved upon later on.

As an outsider, I was able to spot the inefficiencies of that team very easily and provide an even easier fix that was completely painless to them. I don't want to put all the blame on them for not figuring out something that simple earlier, it's very easy to become stuck in tedium when it creeps up on you slowly.

This was a valuable lesson for me, now whenever I find myself acclimating to some inefficiency I have an allergic reaction against it and I do all I can to eliminate it. The most recent examples that come to mind:

  • buying new trash cans for our office at Envy Labs because we were spending each day filling and emptying the shitty Ikea trash cans we bought when we first moved in
  • buying a cheap plastic paper towel dispenser for our bathrooms because we were all ripping towels in pieces from the default metal dispenser
  • grabbing a screwdriver to tighten the hinges of a door that was becoming increasingly difficult to open
  • buying cheap Ikea lamps to use diffused lighting instead of bright overhead lights when working after sunset in the office, to prevent eyestrain that turns into headaches

Yes, many of these involve a purchase. Sometimes you can save a lot of time and frustration by investing a little money. You spend most of your life at work, make the best of it.

Most importantly, keep solving problems.