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What is a "solution" anyway?

By Jeff Terry

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Buzzword bingo or something more?  

The word "solution" entered the English language in the late fourteenth century and, until recently, has been a straightforward word used in straightforward ways.  Recently, however, there's a movement afoot to expand it's meaning.  Job boards are full of postings for solutions architects and solutions salespeople to work in solutions businesses.  A Google search of "products and solutions" produces over three million hits.  Does anyone but me miss the good ole days of "products and services"?  

The real question is:  is there any there, there?  Meaning - is a solution distinctly different from a service?  Or will solutions eventually join synergy, ideate, at-the-end-of-the-day, and blamestorming on a buzzword bingo card near you?  

The answer is probably both.  There's clearly a buzzword bingo aspect in a shift from "I sell copy machines" to "I deliver reproductive solutions," particularly when it's the same job.  But, in many cases, there may just be something different going on.

The need for solutions - in addition to products and services - arises from the incredible complexity of the systems and structures that exist in our world, in hospitals, in businesses, in aviation, in defense, in medicine... all over the place.  As Atul Gawande puts it in A Checklist Manifesto, "what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver benefits correctly, safely or reliably."  At GE, we regularly see this in our work with clients.  Stroke care is one example.  Our knowledge of diagnoses and treatments for stroke patients far exceeds our ability to deliver that medicine to patients.  Hospital utilization is another.  Optimal utilization is 85% but most hospitals operate between 65% and 70%.  The difference between what we could do and what actually happens is tens of thousands of lives (stroke) and tens of billions of dollars (utilization).  How can that be?  It happens because of the immense complexity of delivering care.  In the case of stroke, delivering that care to more patients requires not just great physicians, but also great first responders, a telemedicine infrastructure and trained users, shared protocols between ED, hub, spoke, and EMS, an educated community, defined economics, and EMS bypass legislation.  In short, it is difficult to deliver even average patient care.  In this context, a solution is the magic that closes the gap between what is possible and what occurs.  

Said differently, a solution combines specialized knowledge, process change, culture change, technology, and governance to deliver a new level of performance.  This is distinctly different from a product in that a product delivers only the ability to reach a new result.  For example, a bed management system ("bed board") is a product with which a client might better manage inpatient capacity - or they might not.  By contrast, a patient flow solution includes that bed management system plus targeted process change and a new approach to governance so that the hospital reaches and sustains a higher-level of utilization.  The difference is that a "solution" implies a new result.  As such, solutions are the only answer for our most complex, intractable, and difficult problems.  


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