The Problem with Solving Problems

McDonalds food

If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out? –Will Rogers

For those old enough to remember, McDonald’s used to package Big Mac hamburgers in a sort of paper girdle before wrapping it in foil and placing it in a red box. This multi-layer packaging was meant to keep the Big Mac looking somewhat close to how it was depicted in commercials and on billboards.

And for the most part it worked.

But there was a problem, as author Henry Petroski explains in The Evolution of Useful Things:

The elaborate packaging took considerable time to assemble and not inconsiderable amount of time to open. In short, the medium failed to convey the proper message for a fast food restaurant.

In short, McDonald’s fast food wasn’t fast enough.

So in 1975, McDonald’s introduced a polystyrene box that handily solved the ‘slow food’ problem. The Big Mac could be packaged in one step and the plastic-foam container maintained the temperature of the food.

The hungry consumer could also stuff their face in less time too, and with minimal ‘hassle’.

The “clamshell” (the name it was known by) was a welcome innovation in the fast food industry. Soon other McDonald’s products like the Quarter Pounder and McDLT were delivered in clamshells of varying sizes and colors.

However, despite the clamshell’s useful (albeit extremely short) shelf life, the polystyrene solution created bigger problems.

For one thing, polystyrene lasts forever. The smeared and smelly plastic clamshells quickly piled up in landfills as billions and billions were being served.

Then finally in 1990, McDonald’s began to phase out the clamshell, but not before it had left a permanent negative impact on the planet.

McDonald’s clamshell fiasco is a prime example of being smart but not wise, of fixing a problem that really isn’t a problem. And they’re not alone. History is rife with companies large and small creating “harmful solutions”.

If we’re not careful, the small problems we solve today may be the big problems that threaten our future.

Something to chew on.

Related reading: “Start from the Start” with 4 Problem-Solving Methods

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