Known Knowns? Unknown Unknowns? Know Your Problem Type to Frame Your Response

If you don’t understand the type of question you’re answering, you might use the wrong tool. For example, detecting species swapping is very different than preventing country of origin labeling fraud. Known known? Known unknown? Unknown unknown? The classification makes a difference.

My good friend and frequent collaborator Jason Bashura (former FDA Food Defense Team member) challenged me to think about then-US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld’s classification of problems as known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns, and unknowables (unknown-unknowns). Rumsfeld was ridiculed because this sounded like gibberish. But this is a critical intelligence analysis concept since the type of monitoring, prevention, and response is very different for each type of problem. So often, we – as humans, consumers, food scientists, criminal investigators, etc. – apply the same tool when responding to every problem. Someone once said, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Over the years, I’ve found this classification of problems to be helpful but still a bit confusing. When preparing to present last month at the Technical Forum of the Peanut and Tree Nut Producers Association (PTNPA), I revisited the concept and finally found the primary reference.

The earliest and most thorough primary reference I could find was from Snowden & Boone in Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2007 (note, this ‘Snowden’ is not Edward Snowden, the former computer intelligence consultant who leaked classified information.) Snowden & Boone expanded the known-known concept to explain it in business terms with specific types of problems, including simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. Their paper dives deep, beyond just the explanation of the terms to present response methods and leadership characteristics that help or hinder effective responses.

When preparing my PTNPA presentation and thinking about recommendations for this industry when addressing food fraud, the concepts all came together for me. The ‘type of problem’ classification system is helpful at the very beginning of a food fraud investigation because this can be the foundation for a more standardized response. When you realize the type of problem then you can understand the most efficient first step could be choosing an immediate cause-and-effect response (e.g., peanut allergen adulterant-substance in cumin = immediately test for peanut allergen). In other cases, it may be best to start with a more complex active scenario development (e.g., trying to understand the evolving fraud opportunity seven days after Russia entered Ukraine).

From my PTNPA presentation on Tuesday, June 30:

  • Types of problems (Snowden & Boone, HBR, 2007)
    • Simple (known known – e.g., water on the floor): For example, the risk of someone falling if there is water on the floor. You know there is water on the floor, so you know that people can slip and fall. If the incident had occurred, you know that mopping up the floor is an immediate and effective response. Later, it would be good to figure out the system weakness that enabled the water to get on the floor. If the incident has not yet occurred, but you are concerned, you may try to determine and eliminate the root cause. Also, you may realize that snow may melt off employee shoes during the winter, so that additional floor mats may be applied during the snow season.
    • Complicated (known unknowns – e.g., hurricane season): For example, the risk of supply chain disruptions from hurricanes over a year. You know that hurricanes hit the US gulf coast, but you do not know precisely when they will arrive or the intensity. Still, we know that when there is a hurricane season, the maximum category five could occur, and we know that we can watch the formation of the storms as they cross the Atlantic Ocean. If a category five hurricane is just about to hit your facility, you know that a shutdown and helping your employees seek shelter is an immediate and effective response. (This is familiar to me since I worked for Chevron Corporation in Houston and our manufacturing plants had very proactive and routine hurricane and weather responses.) Afterwards, when reviewing an after-action report, you might realize you should monitor storm development more actively so that you could secure your facilty and send your employees home sooner. Later, you may review the most efficient and least disruptive shutdown and startup procedures.
    • Complex (unknown unknowns – e.g., most food fraud events?): For example, at least most of the new food fraud events seem to fall into the complex/ unknown-unknowns category. You know that food fraud of some type could occur any time in any product, but the type of fraud activity is unknown, and the target product is unknown. Since you know that food fraud could happen, but you have no idea about the type or timing, an early warning system is critical to identify incidents quickly. Still, the most efficient countermeasure is to assess and reduce the vulnerabilities. The effort to identify and reduce vulnerabilities is also the foundation for an efficient early warning system. [If the same type of food fraud keeps occurring, then the problem may become more of a ‘simple’ or ‘complicated’ problem.]
    • Chaotic (unknowables – Ukraine-Russia?): The Snowden & Boone article includes the terrorist attack of 9/11 in this category, especially while that event was occurring. The Ukraine-Russia event probably falls into this category regarding food fraud and the food supply chain. You know that Ukrainian and Russian food production and availability are disrupted. Still, there is no way to understand the extent of the disruption, the duration, or the ripple effects across the global supply chain. For example, constrained natural gas shipments to Europe have increased energy costs, increasing food price inflation. While the core variables for the food supply chain may be the food production in Ukraine and the exports from Russia, the key factors seem to change almost daily. With this massive set of quickly changing variables, the situation is in the category of ‘unknowables.’ Since you know there are constantly changing variables that could impact any part of your operations, a critical step is to identify the immediate concerns (e.g., lack of sunflower oil supply and then ongoing global shortages due to low/ no Ukrainian production) and update scenarios (e.g., ripple effects of tangent disruptions, such as exports of Russian nitrogen, on the global fertilizer supply).
      • From Snowden & Boone: “In the chaotic domain, a leader’s immediate job is not to discover patterns but to stanch the bleeding. A lead must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to [only] complexity, where identification of emerging patterns can both help to prevent future crises and discern new opportunities.”

While this may seem overly complicated or purely academic, there is value in an awareness that there are different types of events, and they require very different types of methods and responses.

In general, this is just further evidence to support a thorough – but not necessarily time-consuming or resource-intensive – food fraud prevention strategy that includes a true management system. A management system is defined by the International Standards Organization (ISO) as “repeatable steps that organizations consciously implement to achieve their goals and objectives, and to create an organizational culture that reflexively engages in a continuous cycle of self-evaluation, correction, and improvement of operations and processes.” A formal management system is just a set of practices defined in a corporate policy and includes regular meetings and standard operating procedures.

Takeaway Points

  • There is a seemingly unending stream of supply chain disruptions that appear to be getting more impactful and more varied.
  • It is helpful to include a consideration of the knowns and unknowns in the classification of the types of problems.
  • Fortunately, a robust food fraud prevention strategy can broaden to include focusing on the full spectrum of emerging issues.

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