Getting high on problem-solving

Martin Fairbank
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One of my favourite activities is hiking to mountain-tops. I start out with a clear objective to get to the top, and when I arrive there I'm rewarded by great views!

It's an activity that gives me not only a physical challenge but a mental one as well in the planning and execution of it. There are many parallels between conquering a mountain and solving a problem.

When you're solving a problem, what at first seems "insurmountable" becomes possible once you understand the causes and develop a plan. If you're climbing a mountain, you know it's possible to get to the top, but it requires good research and planning to achieve it.

To solve a problem, you often need to engage all your senses, instincts and questioning skills to explore its nature. Many problems can be conquered just by asking the right questions and understanding everyone's perceptions of the problem. On a mountain, if the trail is not well-indicated, you have to look around for clues to find the best path forward. What have other hikers done before you? What is the next obstacle to overcome?

The direct route is not always the best route – it's best to go around barriers or steep slopes even if it takes longer. A few years ago I was driving in northern England, where there were two choices of road to my destination. The old road had been built by the Romans and was very straight, but it went up and down some steep slopes. I returned by a newer road, which curved around the hills and was more scenic as well as safer for driving.

Sometimes on the road to solving a problem you can get side-tracked; at this point you should remind yourself of your objective and get back on track. If you get lost on a mountain, the solution is to back-track until you find the main trail again.

Not having all the information required will hinder your troubleshooting. Once when I was working with a team on improving the performance of a deinking flotation cell we had to convince management to take the cover off the top of the cell (installed for safety reasons) so we could see what was happening. This gave us valuable insight and we were able to complete our project a lot faster. Similarly, you can't always see your destination from the side of the mountain; sometimes you have to climb a rock or a tree to get a better view.

With a clear understanding of the causes of a problem, you can reap the rewards of a successful solution. Just as, when you reach the top of a mountain, you get the reward of a 360° view around you. I plan to seek that experience this summer in the Alps. In the off-season, I'll just have to be content with solving problems to get that same sense of achievement!

Martin Fairbank, Ph.D. Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.

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Martin Fairbank Consulting

Industry Experience

  • Pulp and Paper
  • Materials Recycling
  • Biorefinery
  • Manufacturing
  • Government


  • Carbon Markets
    . Carbon credits
    . Carbon footprint
    . Life cycle analysis
  • Project Assessment
    . Proposal writing for government funding
    . Project technical evaluation for funding agencies
  • Chemical Regulations
    . Regulation compliance advice
    . Chemical questionnaires demystified
  • Continuous Improvement
    . Process improvement
    . Lean manufacturing