Posted on May 25th, 2012 in - Rob Zell, Constraints, Leadership, Learning, Resources | No Comments »
By Rob Zell
Before you can really solve a problem you have to get inside it, poke around in the guts of the matter, experience the pain it’s causing the organization, understand how people cope with the issue and how it ripples through other systems. You probably knew this but I was made keenly aware of it through one of my hobbies: running.
As a runner, I have always shopped for cushioned shoes with good stability control. This is what I described to a number of very competent shoe salesmen in very good running stores and they all fitted me in very comfortable shoes that fit the bill. Recently, I started having knee pain and self-diagnosed that I needed new shoes. I went to a well-known running shoe store near my home and described my needs as I understood them. The salesperson asked me to walk across the floor a few times and observed my stride and how my feet struck the floor and recommended a completely different kind of shoe. I was pretty surprised to hear the result, but I took a chance, purchased the shoes and have been running pain free ever since. Surprisingly, these shoes have less cushion and less stability than any other shoe I’ve ever worn.
In business, internal consultants such as myself are often approached to solve a problem that the organization has identified. The business leader will have data and history that highlights the problem and leads to a narrow set of conclusions. “Just fix this issue for me,” the leader will say. “We have a good solution, we just need a few tweaks.”
To be great at solving problems we need to go a bit deeper into the analysis and really explore the issue. In their book, Analyzing Performance Problems, Robert Mager and Peter Pipe shared a decision tree to use to diagnose issues. The beauty of the framework is that it helps identify where the real problem lies and if it’s even worth pursuing. If the issue is worth pursuing, then the analysis continues to examine the various factors that could be contributing to failure.
To get inside the issue you have to change your perspective. Don’t examine the issue as a trainer or project manager, examine it as a guest. If I, as a guest, wanted to make this purchase, how easy is it to get answers? To find the price? How do I know the value compared to other items? What is the sales experience like? How do I feel when I’m done? How does it feel to make the same purchase at a competitor?
You should also walk in the shoes of the salesman, the stock clerk, the delivery agent, the packer, the shipper, the manufacturer, the manager, the district manager etc. At each phase of the delivery, someone is impacted by the process. This is true for services, manufacturing, even leadership. The farther you go back up the chain, walking in someone else’s shoes, the more information you gather. Ask the people at each level or phase what their experience is like handling that item or performing that function.
I will concede that you may not have the time for that kind of in depth analysis on every project. I will challenge you to ask who makes the ultimate decision on the viability of the product or process. I am well known in my training classes for asking, “Who makes the ultimate decision on what gets executed in our stores?” I work in retail and often deal with operations leaders and support staff who are keenly aware of initiatives that are designed to improve operating margin. After fielding answers, I reply, “The front line employee. The minimum wage associate decides, in the moment, the action that will reap the greatest benefit and/or alleviate the most pressure.” I usually let that sink in a bit and then continue to explain that if your process is too difficult or causes them discomfort, they will ignore it. Not out of malicious intent; they will do so out of a sense of self-preservation.
If you aren’t taking the time to understand all of the ramifications of the problem, you may be creating solutions that actually cause “pain” in the individuals who have to execute your plan. You will have created a fix based on a faulty diagnosis or at least, a diagnosis that failed to take into account the depth of the issue.
Like running shoes that fix a problem you don’t really have, they will cause pain until you explore the issue from a different perspective. Once you uncover all the facts, you can create solutions that keep the organization running, healthy and happy.
Have you been handed issues to fix and had success at diving deeper to get to the true problem? Share your success stories so we can learn how to deal with leaders who didn’t have the right perspective on the issue.