tushar shinde

The Complex Solution #3

11.3 Million people tuned in to their TV sets on the new year’s day of 2017. BBC broadcasted Sherlock’s The Six Thatchers episode with a consolidated audience share of 37.8 percent. No wonder why BBC refers to this series as a masterpiece!

Ever wondered what makes it great though?

Sherlock belongs to one of the most popular genres in literature – Mystery & Thriller. And oh boy, people like mysteries because people are mysteries. It is not hard to create stories which makes readers await the revelation, but great mysteries create the sense of originality where the solution outcomes are fanciful or unexpected. Great mysteries like these are not made from the infrastructure settings and the facilities, they’re made by people who live there. Every person you see or read, you kinda meet them. They have something special to tell you. That’s the charm, every other person is smarter than the previous one and this circle comes back to us as well and then it extends, again. In other words, you are a part of the circle. For Sherlock, most of the times it was not about who did it but was about how they did it!

The case study method, now popularized by management schools was first brought in by Harvard in 1919. It is rooted in the foundations of Harvard from the era when even the idea of teaching management in school was very new and pathbreaking. This was the formal start of MBA curriculums. The case method had been a key to the improvement of studying businesses, made Harvard Business School stand out and pioneered by many others who followed along.

Now, could you please take a moment and wonder why these case methods of studying businesses are popular though?

Hope you could relate. Because these cases are like detective stories. HBS presented their first case study in 1921 which was a single page document explaining a real-world problem a shoe company in town was facing. These case papers are not supposed to include the solutions and are open ended just like your life. Solutions could be multiple, yet we have to come up with the most optimized and efficient ones through research and discussions among peers. I will go on and explain the problem described in that first case with the socio-economic context of the time.


The Problem: Something has gone wrong in one of the plant of General Shoe Company in Boston. The company has 2 working shifts ending at afternoon 12 and evening 5. It has come to the notice of Chief Executive Officer that most of the piece workers in the plant stop working 45 minutes prior to shift end time in both shifts. This was affecting the production of the shoes and company has more demand than it could supply. If they don’t keep up with the supply, company will lose its repo as well as the market share. Situation is getting worse as this is April, 1919.

Company Policy Context: This is right after World War 1 and justifies the demand. Cost of living has increased by 95% but wages couldn’t keep up with the inflation and increased only by 90%. Average earning for a piece worker in March, 1919 is $18 – $20 per week. People are supposed to keep constantly working at their facilities/machines until a whistle is blown sharp 10 minutes before the shift’s ending time. After which, they have to go to the small washrooms, wash their hands and go home. It is observed that about 30% of the employees go home with their hands unwashed.

Infrastructure Context: There are 700 employees at the plant, of whom 650 are piece workers with 60% men. The washrooms are small rooms containing few faucets, because of which people have to wash their hands in the running water. The clothing of employee is hung near their machines and not in the washroom. Room for new washrooms cannot be made inside the plant building as it needs re-arrangements of the machines, involving costs. Plant is five stories high and has machines in every possible space. Cost of building a new floor is $4/sq.ft.


What will you do as a CEO to save your company?


There are several possible things which are happening here leading to the main problem. Let’s do the cause analysis and find the root, if possible.

Possible Issue 1: Workers are unhappy with their wages and this is a way to show their silent protest. They cannot leave the job in the turmoiled post-war conditions.

Possible Issue 2: As reported by employees, they have to wait for their turns to wash the hands so they take 45 minutes or less in advance to proceed with that final ceremony, otherwise they cannot leave at exact 12 noon or 5 eve.

Possible Issue 3: It could be the case that the foremen are not enforcing the rule correctly and they might be corrupt.

Possible Issue 4: The piece workers are working so hard to keep up with the demand that they are exhausted before the actual shift ending times.

Possible Issue 5: It could be the case that assembly lines are not balanced properly and the inter-dependant units are chaotic which is leading to the inefficiency with workers having idle time in hands.


If one thinks more, he/she can come up with more possibilities. The more you research about the conditions at that time, the mindsets of workers, relationships between industrialists and people, financial liabilities for both, economy in the region and random uncontrollable factors like war, the more you get closer in finding the solution. It’s a detective story!

It’s an open ended case which was asked in the classes at Harvard. You are free to discuss it among your peers and come up with a bunch of possible solutions. But just keep in mind, do you actually have enough information to make a decision that you will be taking as a CEO? Because acting on a wrong root cause (the RCA we were trying to perform above) will cause the problem!

If you don’t agree on the last paragraph, try knowing what that CEO did back in 1919. Was it correct or wrong or somewhere in the middle? Where is General Shoe Company now? Didn’t it survive the problem and die out? It’s been 100 years now since he took the decision. Remember small decisions can have long term effects in business and in every other thing. The butterfly effect!!

(Hint: Figure out what you’re gonna ask? to whom?)

The first case could be found in this video where I took this excerpt from:

One Comments

  • Nitesh Tripathi

    January 4, 2020

    From the given information it could be deducted that the CEO is unwilling to build a new floor because of the high costs involved. Why? Because he would otherwise tried to match wages with inflation. If the existing washrooms are small and the cost of building a floor full of washrooms is high, then we can ask workers to wash hands according to serial numbers from 1 to 650, and adress the problem not fully but slightly


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