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Problem Solving Lessons from a Pandemic Puzzle


I love puzzles - always have.


When I was a kid we had a handful of Peanuts puzzles that were my favorites. Some were 250 pieces, a few were 500, with Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, and the whole gang in vivid color. I would put those puzzles together summer after summer, and developed a pretty good method to maximize my productivity. Even as a kid I was into process efficiency!


And of course everyone knows how you start a jigsaw puzzle - you pull out all the flat edge pieces and put the border together. Then you can look at the picture and find the best place to start. It might be one colorful item in the picture, or the outline of a section.


So like many people, when I had lots of time at home in 2020 I got a few new puzzles to pass some time and let my brain recover from life. I saw this puzzle and thought it would be a fun challenge. I had only done one round puzzle before, and for this one I decided that once I started I would NOT look at the picture to help me complete it.


How hard could that be? I learned ROYGBIV in grade school, and did pretty well in art class. So I opened the box, started flipping the pieces color side up, extracting the curvy edge pieces as I went. After one pass through the box it seemed like I had most of the edges so I began fitting them together to frame out the border.


As I attempted to build the border I noticed that the subtlety of color in these pieces was a bit more challenging than I anticipated. Despite the stark difference in color as you more towards the middle, it was difficult to discern the shading at the edge. I plugged away, but my brain started wondering if there was a better (more productive) way to do this puzzle.

I remembered an unusual piece I had seen when I was sorting for the edges - so unusual I had pulled it out and set it aside. I stopped working on the edge and focused on that piece. I quickly realized this was the center piece of the puzzle. Typical square puzzles don't generally have something like this, so I had not initially recognized it. I saw that the adjacent pieces would be odd shaped too, and in a short time I found them in the loose pieces and had assembled the inner ring around the center.


And just like that, I realized that the easiest - best, fastest, most efficient - way to work this puzzle was NOT to work from the edge in, but to work from the center OUT. And just that quickly I threw out decades of puzzle expertise and tried a new method. I picked up speed quickly, and bounced from color to color. I working the easier ones first - green, yellow and orange - before moving to blue, purple, and red.

So now I had the center color section completed...…but it was misaligned with the edge frame. And by a lot! I had to reposition the edge a full 90 degrees (that's one quarter of the way for the geometrically challenged) to get the sections to match.


Now I was able to place the pieces connecting the frame to the field section. These were by far the hardest to locate; definitely a development I had not anticipated at the start.


This proved to be a fun challenge, a great way to pass the time with some unexpected lessons learned. My self-imposed constraint of not looking at the picture boosted the challenge and provided a fun extra level of satisfaction when I completed the puzzle.


Here are my takeaways from this puzzle:

  1. Just because a process has worked for decades does not mean it is the most effective today.

  2. Outliers may not be your problem - they might be your solution.

  3. The problem you think you need to solve for may not be the biggest challenge.

  4. Continuous improvement is a way of life!

PS - For those of us into the mind / body connection, you get a little hit of dopamine (the feel good hormone) each time you fit a piece together!


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