Don’t Wait for a Crisis, Fix it Now

By Sid Scott

We are all familiar with and pretty much understand the old saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."  This is especially true when it comes to taking care of our equipment and technology. We all have learned that anticipating potential issues, planning for crises and doing regular, proper maintenance can help us avoid disasters. Yet, in spite of its profound implications, when it comes to addressing "people problems," many of us fail to take action in the early stages. Instead we wait until a crisis forces action--action which is far more costly in time, money and stress for everyone affected.

When things go wrong at work, as they occasionally do, a common first reaction is to look for the culprit(s). This can lead to punishment which may result in the "evildoer(s)" being severely reprimanded, or even terminated. Unfortunately, not only does the problem often remain unsolved, the organization is left with another challenge of replacing a person or two. There may be a better way that doesn't result in a lose-lose situation.

Dr. Joseph Juran, one of the early champions of what is now known as total quality management, observed that many managers operated under the philosophy that most problems could be eliminated if people would just learn how to do their jobs better. He disagreed with this premise, and began to vocalize the opposite viewpoint that systems, not people, were to blame for most mistakes and errors. The Juran rule of thumb is that 85 percent of the workplace problems can be corrected by changing systems. By the same token, workers control 15 percent or less of what can be changed. Dr. Juran's wisdom has helped many organizations stop pointing fingers and instead begin to search for the actual source of problems.

To look at work systems, we need to do three things. First, to be successful, the whole team needs to be involved in problem solving. From practical experience, we have learned that those "closest to the problem" have insights and ideas that others of us, not actively involved, do see. On the other hand, sometimes being close to the problem give us limited vision and those not involved can see other solutions. The lesson is that the best problem-solving teams have a mixture of folks with different perspectives and experiences. By involving the entire team in the problem solving process, we can realize several beneficial effects. A larger group often generates better ideas than a smaller one. This is especially true when the expanded group includes individuals who are directly affected by the problem, or the solution to the problem as we mentioned. Further, problem solving enhances teamwork by making everyone feel valued through the participative process. This can result in higher quality solutions which benefit the organization and its stakeholders.  And, group problem solving becomes a learning experience, training individuals for future challenges. Finally, by being involved in the entire process, broad acceptance of the final solution is enhanced.

Second, to be effective at identifying and solving the problem, someone has to serve as a facilitator. It's difficult to be both a facilitator and a participant. The role of facilitator is difficult, if not impossible, for the manager of a group. In the facilitator role, the person should neither evaluate nor contribute ideas. Since managers are charged with the task of evaluating employee owners and oversight of work processes, most find it very uncomfortable to move into a facilitating style within their own departments or groups. The solution is to make the manager part of the problem-solving team and bring in an outside facilitator-someone who has no direct stake in the outcome of the problem.  The best people to help facilitate the process come from outside the group, maybe even outside the company. A facilitator has to be a neutral servant of the problem-solving group with "no skin in the game" or "dog in the fight."

Third, in order to understand the problem and identify the best solution, a scientific approach is essential. This isn't "rocket science", but there are some good approaches that can help a group go through the proper stages before selecting the best course of action.

In companies I am familiar with, managers are shown how to use a nine-step, problem-solving method. Based on the scientific methodology used by physical scientists, this process helps a group by giving it an organized approach. After discussion of the problem situation, the problem(s) is (are) identified and a formal problem statement is developed.  The problem statement may be modified later after additional data are collected. The group goes through a process to separate causes from effects in order to concentrate efforts on the causal factors.

Once the group is satisfied that it understands the problem and has adequate background information, alternatives are generated using various techniques. Once alternatives generated, criteria that need to be satisfied are listed and discussed. Finally, the best solution(s) is (are) identified by using the criteria to aid the decision-making process. Once the optimum solution is identified, planning for implementation takes place. While this process can be longer than a less scientific approach, the resulting solutions are invariably better. And, a good facilitator can vary techniques to make the process both productive and enjoyable. By slowing down the tendency of a group to jump quickly from problem identification to brainstorming to implementation, the quality of work is greatly enhanced.

The renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow once remarked, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, it's not long before every problem begins to look like a nail."  Hammering fellow employee owners usually makes things worse and often does nothing to help improve things. By giving everyone a problem-solving "hammer," we're certain to nail the best solutions!

Sid Scott

Sid Scott, chairman, Woodward Communications, Inc.