Extension and Outreach Is for Problem Solvers

This week’s message is from guest contributor Linda Brinkmeyer, Administrative Assistant in my office.

This harvest season my new daughter-in-law pickled jalapeño peppers from her garden. Impressive. I have enjoyed hearing about how she started her garden from a seed tray, her success with the kale and pepper crops, and the struggles with her tomatoes.

This woman is a down-to-earth problem solver. However, she became frustrated enough with her tomato plants’ non-performance that she pulled them out and threw them into the compost pile behind the garage. (Extension and Outreach has something to say about that: “The Do’s and Don’ts of Composting.”) Come to find out, those tomatoes really took to that compost, and before too long she was showing me her hearty tomato plants growing cattywampus out of that compost pile.

Her subsequent plotting (no pun intended) resulted in great ideas. First, she realized there was too much shade in the back yard, so she thought she might put a raised bed in their sunnier front yard for tomatoes and other sun-loving plants. (See “Raised Beds for Vegetable Production.”) Second, the situation with the compost pile led her to believe that the soil in her raised beds in the back yard may need a boost. (Check “Yard and Garden: Soil pH and Testing.”)

She went on to tell me about a conversation she’d had with a friend about strategies for preparing garden soil in the fall for spring planting. She shared that he had informed her about this really great collection of knowledge built into a website and even a hotline! I said, “You mean ISU Extension and Outreach, right?” Yes, she replied, although she felt a little sheepish about not having connected me with ISU Extension and Outreach. (It’s not like I’m a vice president or anything. I just work for one.)

I was absolutely delighted to talk with her about her ambitious gardening, which led into another discussion about how she and my son are experimenting with preparing their weeknight meals on the weekends, to stay in line with their budget and keep their hectic lifestyle more manageable. I wonder if there is anything on the ISU Extension and Outreach website about that? (Try this tip from Spend Smart. Eat Smart.)

Extension and Outreach is for problem solvers.

See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Finding the Problems

“If you like things easy, you’ll have difficulties; if you like problems, you’ll succeed.” – Laotian proverb

Does Extension and Outreach need an “easy” button? It seems to work for Staples. You can download an easy button for your desktop from the Staples website. You even can order your own talking easy button so you can hear “that was easy” at any time. An easy button certainly may come in handy for ordering ink and toner cartridges, but for preparing and delivering our educational programs? Not so much.

Extension and Outreach often has prided itself on being a problem solver. We’ve said we solve problems or we help Iowans solve problems. It used to be easy. Perhaps there used to be fewer problems or perhaps we solved the easy problems first and just left the tough ones. Most education was based on this type of model as well — solving problems.  If train A leaves the station at 6:00 heading east, and train Y leaves a station 50 miles away heading west…

This type of model is based on knowing things.  And Extension and Outreach has always been very good at knowing things.  Today there is so much information out there it’s a bit harder to keep up.  People grasp at quick solutions before understanding what the real problem is.

If you think of it that way, it may not be that we need problem solvers, so much as problem finders.  We are engaging with problems to which even our researchers may not know the answers or taking on the “unknown unknowns,” as Ewan McIntosh says.  Bottom line: You have to understand the issue you’re dealing with before you can find an accurate solution. This is a skill we must cultivate in ourselves and in our clients. 

When we focus on providing access and building capacity, then Iowa State education and research can benefit Iowans quickly and effectively — and Iowans can inform the evolving research. Together we can find the best solutions — after we find the right problems. See you there.

— Cathann

The Barney Factor

Recently, I travelled with President Leath to Black Hawk County, to tour a CIRAS partner company. Power Engineering and Manufacturing (PEM) specializes in custom design and manufacturing of heavy-duty gearboxes. While touring their line, Dennis Schilling, Quality Assurance Manager, shared that one of their greatest challenges has been something they call the “Barney Factor.”

A former plant manager, nicknamed Barney, attempted to resolve issues quickly and efficiently. If a gear didn’t fit over a pinion, instead of taking time to determine the root cause and resolve the issue properly, Barney would have the machinists make the internal dimensions of the gear larger, so when it got to assembly, all the parts fit. He did this so often in fact, that he eventually required machinists to do this for ALL gears produced at PEM.  Barney did this so often, in fact, that the “Barney Factor” eventually became an accepted and management approved method of problem prevention.  There are two problems with this approach. First, by making gears larger, Barney reduced their strength, which led to a higher rate of failure in the field. In other words — and this is important — Barney solved his problem in the plant by, essentially, pushing the problem down the road to the customer. Second, by solving the immediate problem and not investigating the root cause, Barney wasn’t able to discover fundamental engineering errors. So the company never knew where the problem originated and would never improve the quality of the final product.

This particularly impacted the company when it came to “endplay,” which is the amount of clearance designed into a stack-up of parts in an assembly. According to Dennis, you usually want some endplay, because it allows parts to spin freely, which reduces wear. But with too much endplay parts can move around, crash into each other, and create damage and wear.  So, all assemblies are designed with a pre-determined, acceptable amount of endplay. When PEM operated with the Barney Factor, machinists were instructed to always take bores deeper than the drawings called for, and then simply shim additional endplay back to specifications. It sounds like a workable solution to the numerous endplay issues they experienced over the year, until you factor in the amount of resources Dennis estimates was spent measuring for shims, creating shims, and purchasing material for the great number of shims they needed for each gearbox. Furthermore, this manufacturing “solution” also hid fundamental engineering errors that led to them needing a solution in the first place.

This is not how they do it anymore. Now, PEM uses sophisticated quality control measures to evaluate each part and determine errors prior to and during assembly. Not only has this sped up the line, but it also takes fewer resources (no more shims) and results in a higher quality product with an increased service life, for the customer.  As I listened to Dennis tell his story, I wondered: Does Extension and Outreach operate with our own version of the Barney Factor? Rather than getting at the heart of a problem, do we sometimes push the problem down the road, or let immediate solutions generate more problems?  Do we create more work with fixes which require greater resources or are inefficient?

Dennis reports that when they first started to implement the quality control measures, there was tremendous resistance from machinists, assemblers, and others, because initially, things got worse. Dennis attributes that to pulling the problem back from the customer to the plant and that, frankly, people were resistant to change. A very common phrase heard throughout the plant was, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  He says he knew what they were doing was right, but it helped to have the support of others who understood that making things easy on us internally doesn’t always help us build a stronger, longer lasting product overall. In other words, PEM moved from a corrective action system that created more problems to really solving their problems. See you there.

— Cathann

In the Trenches – The Very Hot, Dry Trenches

This summer has not necessarily gone the way most of us might have envisioned it back in the spring.  You remember spring?  When temperatures hovered in the 70’s?  Craig Hill, President of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, says they planned this past week’s Agriculture Economic Summit with the idea that we’d be talking about a bumper crop of corn and managing prices.  As Harrison, Clinton, and Muscatine counties planned their 100th anniversary celebrations, I’m guessing they weren’t expecting the temperature to match or surpass the number of years of county extension work being celebrated.  And on a personal note, I can tell you that I had other plans for the funds I’m now paying for repairing my old AC unit and keeping up with my electric bills.

As Sherry Glenn and I traveled across the state in the last couple of weeks, we heard a lot about the impact of the summer’s weather on our friends and neighbors.  All of us in Extension and Outreach are attempting to respond as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Extension and Outreach has been steadily assisting Iowans as they deal with this year’s drought conditions.

•    Joel DeJong reported that more than 250 people attended an emergency meeting that ISU Extension and Outreach organized in Le Mars on July 19 to receive updates on crop production, livestock feeding, and crop insurance from extension specialists and government crop programs from Farm Service Agency personnel. That same day in Davis County more than 60 people came to another emergency meeting, bringing their questions on chopping corn, baling soybeans, grazing cover crops, and more. Mark Carlton noted that the meeting had not even been advertised – clients heard through word of mouth. Extension field specialists are holding additional local meetings in stressed areas throughout the state. This year’s farmland leasing meetings are covering drought issues as well.

•    At least 11 locations hosted the July 20 webinar covering fruit, vegetable, lawn, and tree issues. The archived sessions are linked from the Dealing with Drought Web page, Thirty-six sites hosted the crop and livestock issues webinar on July 25. The archived segments from that webinar also are linked from the drought Web page.

•    Questions and answers from the webinars as well as answers to other frequently asked questions received from clients will be added to the Dealing with Drought Web page. Check the page frequently for resources to help Iowans deal with drought and other natural disasters. Iowans will find materials related to crops, livestock, dealing with stress, home and yard, financial concerns, and tips for businesses.

•    Lee County Extension Council member Steve Newberry and his wife, Linda Newberry, hosted U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack and FSA Executive Director John Whitaker on Saturday, July 21, for a tour of parched fields. See for a story from The Hawk Eye.

ANR Extension hotlines, Families Answer Line and Iowa Concern hotline are responding to calls and emails on drought related issues.  The Iowa Concern Hotline is available 24/7 to provide assistance.

Our Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) is scanning communities to determine water rationing policies and potential impacts on manufacturers.

We’re reaching out to Georgia Tech and Texas A&M, both partner institutions and requesting materials which were useful during their droughts and which may have utility in Iowa.

Faced with a situation that demands leadership, Extension and Outreach faculty and staff are ready.  We bring our mission to educate and our unwavering belief that education best prepares our citizens to recognize change is inevitable and that there will always be challenges.  An educational perspective allows us to see the opportunities and benefits in taking risks and learning from past mistakes.  It encourages us to constantly reflect on our actions and beliefs and think about the results and consequences of each and it best prepares us to make good decisions for the future.  See you there.


P.S. You can share your comments about this message on the blog, at

Searching for the Obvious

Recently, I stayed in Washington, D.C., for a week while attending events. By day two, I realized that the coffee provided in my hotel was not quite strong enough for me and decided to strike out in search of Starbucks. Knowing that in D.C. you can find one every few blocks, I got out my smart phone and searched. Sure enough, my Google map showed me one just six blocks north of my location, straight up 10th Street.

Studying the map to be sure I turned the right way as I left my hotel, I was soon on my way. Unfortunately, what my smart phone couldn’t tell me was that the area six blocks north was under construction and that Starbucks was closed. Undeterred, I searched again and found another location just five blocks east. I walked to that location, paying careful attention to my map only to find that it was no longer even there. One more try sent me seven blocks south and I triumphed by finding a small shop and got my coffee.

Cathann and StarbucksWalking back to my hotel, I put my phone away. As I approached the block where my hotel sat, I saw a brand new Starbucks – so new it had not yet registered on my map, but was clearly obvious, if I had just walked out my hotel door and looked across the street. (Yeah, that’s me standing in front of my hotel in the picture). Besides feeling rather sheepish – but justifying that the exercise was good for me – it made me ponder other times when I get so busy focusing on what I think is the way to get something done, that I don’t see an opportunity when it’s right in front of me.

I suspect I’m not alone in this tendency. If you’re like me, you were raised to be self-reliant and to tackle problems as they present themselves. When a problem arises, I kick into gear and I go into “problem-solving” mode – what do I need to do, what tools do I need, who should I talk to, what are the steps to solve this problem. Of course, what a problem-solving approach means is that we’ve already begun to narrow our field of vision, much like my focus on my smart phone map. Seeking opportunities, however, is kind of the opposite and requires broadening our scope and looking around. See you there.

— Cathann

Not Just the Light Bulb

My middle son, Payden, likes to know how things work and why. So, he asks questions. When he was 12, he asked a lot of questions about light bulbs — “Where does the light come from? What is the little wire made of?” — that kind of thing. His questions began to press upon his mother’s knowledge of such things, so I suggested he look it up. “Try ‘Edison,’” I said.

A few days later, Payden started reciting a dizzying array of facts about light bulbs.  I’ll spare you the full array, but one fact caught my attention. Thomas Edison created the electric light bulb and THEN created the system of electric power generation and distribution to make it useful.

I hadn’t ever thought about that, but obviously, as cool as the light bulb was, without an easy way to use it, no one would. Edison succeeded by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people wanted and needed in their lives and the way things were made, marketed, and supported.

As we think about the future of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, it’s key to consider whether we’ve become just “light bulb” thinkers or if we consistently seek a broad systems approach — which makes the cool ideas useful. That broader approach is much harder work, or “99 percent perspiration,” as Edison put it. See you there.


The Paradox of Problem-solving

Organizational consultant Robert Fritz describes the paradox of problem-solving:
•  The problem leads to action to solve the problem.
•  Action to solve the problem leads to less intensity about the problem.
•  Less intensity about the problem leads to less action to solve the problem.
•  Less action to solve the problem leads to the problem remaining.

What drives the action of problem-solving is the intensity of the problem. Once the intensity lessens, it’s hard to keep people motivated and focused on acting to do something about the problem. Problem-solving then becomes self-defeating.

People work to solve problems to make something they don’t want go away. But if all we do is solve problems, then we’ll never focus on the vision we want to create.

So maybe we shouldn’t solve problems, or at least not spend all our time problem-solving. Instead, let’s create what we want — a new reality and a better future. See you there.

— Cathann