Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

The Underlying Problem

Often, the problem we seek to solve is only a symptom of something underneath. We examine the symptom to identify its root cause. And, sometimes, even root cause analysis fails us.

Sometimes, the root cause does not lie in the problem, but in the way we see the problem. The way we talk about a problem is a function of what we believe, our assumptions about the problem.

Does the way we state a problem have an impact on the way we approach the solution?

What we say is what we believe.

Before we grapple with the problem, it is important to understand our beliefs and assumptions about the problem. It could be the problem is not the problem. The problem could be what we believe about the problem that is simply not true.

Three Magic Words

“I don’t why my manager is so bull-headed,” Marjorie complained. “He asks for my advice and then argues with me. It’s infuriating.”

“Infuriating?” I asked.

“Yes, just because he has his opinion doesn’t mean he is right.”

“Marjorie, seldom are things so stark that one person is right and the other wrong, but if that is the case, doesn’t it make sense to make sure you are not the person who is wrong? The only way you can do that is through thoughtful dialogue.”

“Oh, yeah, and how am I supposed to do that?” Marjorie wanted to know.

“Three magic words. In the face of disagreement, just say – Tell me more.”

How to Cripple a Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Faced with a problem to solve, my team never really comes up with anything. Sometimes it seems they just want me to tell them what to do so they don’t have to think. We are really busy, so most times, I give in, tell them the answer and get them back to work. But, at the end of the day, I am exhausted.

Of course they want you to tell them what to do. If you tell them what to do, then they are not responsible for the solution. Every time you solve a problem that the team should solve, you cripple the team from solving the next problem.

It’s a tough assignment for you to turn down. You get all the glory, you get to strut, you get to be the head Fred, you get to be the go-to guy when there is a problem to solve. It feels good AND it destroys your team.

Most of all, your team likes it that way. They are relieved of the difficult decisions.

This is not just a method called team problem solving, this is a mind-set on the part of the manager. If you want to build a team, give them a problem to solve. As the manager, you may have to help define the problem, facilitate alternate solutions and ask questions related to the best solution, but let the silence do the heavy lifting.

I can always tell a team is stuck when they fail to solve the same problem they had a year ago. I can always tell a team is growing when they trade in the problems from a year ago (now solved) for a new set of problems for tomorrow. -Tom

Not the Manager’s Problem to Solve

“Timing?” Miriam repeated. “I don’t wait for the team to struggle. I don’t wait for the panic when the problem emerges?”

“As soon as you put the problem on the table, the panic will ensue. Let’s say you have three head-strong team members, individually, they are all very competent in their roles. But, whenever they have to work together, the three butt heads, with their own opinions about the direction of the project. In this state, emotions run high, cooperation and support disappears, there is passive agreement in public and aggressive backstabbing in private. As the manager, on this project, you need mutual support and cooperation. What do you do?”

“When I see the misbehavior, I would sit them down, individually, and communicate my expectations. I would explain that I would monitor their behavior and that I would not tolerate disagreement and shouting.” Miriam stopped. “I think you are going to suggest something different.”

“This is not your problem to solve. Understand, you are accountable for the output of this team, but only the team can solve this problem. Your role is to name the problem, put it on the table, in front of everyone, and outlast the panic.” -Tom

Don’t Be the Critical Parent

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

I’m a new manager for a staff of about 65 people. It seems that my predecessor was not a good manager. I was left with people misinformed about company and regulatory policies. Anytime I point out something being done incorrectly, I end up being the bad guy. I’ve tried to be nice, explain my reasoning and show proof, but it doesn’t work. They just keep saying the previous manager didn’t tell them. One staff member even called another department to complain. How can I get them to listen and comply with rules and regulatory policies we have to follow? Should I start writing people up or just keep explaining myself?

One thing I learned a long time ago, no one listens to me. It doesn’t matter how brilliant I am. It doesn’t matter how I nail the solution to the problem, I get no respect. It’s the Rodney effect.

Why should they listen to you? Whatever you have to say, means a change for them. And it doesn’t matter if you are right.

There is one person, however, they will listen to. If you can figure out who that person is, and get that person to dispense the helpful advice, you will make some headway.

I have found the only person from whom people will take negative criticism is themselves. The advice has to come from them.

Here is how I would start. Observe the kinds of things that people are doing outside of guidelines and policies, take some notes and build a list. Then call a meeting to discuss how we could make improvements in various areas. Describe one difficulty or problem or one process in which we would like a different result. Divide the team into smaller groups of 2-3 to brainstorm ideas to get the best ideas, then invite team members to take the new actions and try them out.

I would conduct these five minute meetings 2-3 times per week, looking at all kinds of ways to make improvements. Pretty soon, they will see new ideas you never thought of. And you don’t have to be the critical parent.

Difference Between S-II and S-III Problem Solving

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

The manager understands he is accountable. The result he achieves on a key metric is well below the expectation which he or she clearly understood. They have achieved success before on this same metric but are now way off acceptable performance. What now?

Indeed, what now? Embedded in your question are stratum II descriptions of problem solving.

  • Solve problems based on experience.
  • Solve problems based on documented experience.
  • Solve problems based on best practices.
  • Solve problems according to standard operating procedures.

All of these methods have delivered output according to the metric before. They achieved success before on this same metric, but now, are way off acceptable performance. What now?

They now face a problem they have not faced before and their stratum II problem solving methods fail them. Understand this team can solve all the routine problems, but now faced with this problem, they struggle, even the supervisor. This is where the stratum III manager must step in. This problem requires a stratum III solution.

  • Solve problems through root cause analysis.
  • Solve problems through A-B testing.
  • Solve problems through comparative analysis.
  • Solve problems through what-if?

Solving problems with these methods requires a higher level of capability on the part of the manager. And that’s what a manager is for, to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of the team.

Team members can solve the routine problems and make the routine decisions, it’s when they struggle, they need the active support and coaching from their manager. This is the critical nature of managerial accountability and the building block of organizational structure.

Kick Start on Problem Solving

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Comment from yesterday’s post about the Open Door:
Right on! Only one more simple thing that will make it perfect — you hit a bit on it but I will expand as it works wonders. Put a sign up that says No Questions – in other words when you come to my office, don’t ask a question, tell me the issue and tell me what you intend to do. I will either say ok or we will discuss if I think it necessary. People come to you mindlessly and ask questions, you answer them thinking you are helping, they leave your office without taking ownership of the results – you told me to do this – they learn nothing and they feel you want them to come to you with all questions, because you don’t trust them to do the right thing. It is a vicious cycle. Simply, don’t answer any more questions.

I saw this on a manager’s desk, a little sign sitting by a pad of pre-printed 3×5 sheets. The sign said –

  • I know you have a question, but before we discuss it, please take this sheet and meet me in the conference room in ten minutes.

And on the pad of pre-printed 3×5 sheets –

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. What’s the cause of the problem?
  3. What are the alternative solutions?
  4. What is the best solution?

So, what do you think happened when the manager met the team member in the conference room?

Not So Fast, Don’t Solve the Problem, Yet

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

We are working on team problem solving. We think it’s a good idea, but we are not getting the results that we thought we would get. In fact, sometimes the team comes up with solutions that either don’t work, don’t solve the problem or create more havoc than the original problem. The team is eager and always has suggestions, so it’s not a matter of enthusiasm.

The problem we name is the problem we solve. So, if the group names the wrong problem (symptom), the underlying cause may never be discovered. I work with groups all the time that are trigger happy to solve the problem without understanding or probing. They believe that what they don’t know is probably irrelevant. They believe the way they understand the problem is accurate. They believe that other people’s perceptions about the problem are wrong. They believe the problem presented is actually the problem, when often it’s not.

Slow this group down, force them through the following steps, when confronted with the problem.

  • Have one, two or three people restate the problem as they heard it.
  • Open up the discussion with this rule, NO recommendations, NO observations, NO stories, ONLY clarifying questions. No exceptions. (This step in the discussion is always the most important. This is where the real work is done.)
  • Only after all clarifying questions are exhausted (you can tell, because clarifying the problem is exhausting), then open the discussion for recommendations, observations and shared stories.
  • Action (or commitment) step. Based on the discussion, what is the most potent action that can be taken to resolve the underlying cause of the problem (issue or opportunity).

Most groups move too fast toward recommendations. Slow them down.

Are There Limits to Creativity?

“I think we need to create a circle,” Russell explained.

“What’s a circle?” I asked.

“I was reading about this new management thing called holacracy. It’s a group of people in the company who get together to solve a problem,” he replied.

“Why do you call it a circle, rather than a project team?” I wanted to know.

“A project team is too limiting. It stifles thought. This circle would be free to think in brand new ways, without limits,” Russell smiled at his new idea.

“So, if the circle thought the best way to solve a problem would be by embezzling a million dollars from the company checking account by submitting phony invoices, that would be okay?” I queried.

Russell chuckled. “Aw, come on. That would never happen.”

“So, there are some limits to the solutions?”

“Well, yes, but I want the circle to be free to be creative,” Russell insisted.

“But, just to be clear. The circle (project team) would have discretionary judgement within limits?” I looked straight at Russell.

Russell was quiet for a moment. “I suppose so,” he relented.

Get to the Root Cause of the Problem

Emily was nervous as she entered the classroom. She knew that I would not allow her to be a passive observer, but front and center in the crucible. I turned to greet the other folks who were now streaming in.

“I would like everyone to meet Emily. She has an interesting problem at work. With our help, she is going to walk us through some solutions.” Emily looked at me sideways. It would take her a bit to trust this group.

Up at the front, Emily stood. “I really don’t know what kind of problem I have,” she started. “Our manufacturing line is not meeting its daily quota and the reject rate is at 11 percent.” Emily continued to describe the circumstances, considering morale, motivation and working conditions. Then the questions started from the group.

“Who decides the daily quota?”
“How is the daily target communicated to the line?”
“Who tracks the number of completed units?”
“How does the line know if they are falling short or getting ahead of the target?”

Emily responded crisply, “The daily quota is determined by the sales forecast and what we need in stock, but the people on the line don’t need to know that. They just need to build the units faster. When the QC people pick up the units for inspection at the end of the day, they count them and it’s on my report the next day.”

Ernesto raised his hand. “So, the line doesn’t know how far they missed Tuesday’s quota until Wednesday?”

“Not exactly,” Emily replied. “I don’t want to discourage them, so I just tell them they were a little short, that they are doing good job and to try harder. I am worried about morale getting any lower.”

Ernesto tilted his head to directly engage Emily. “You are treating this issue as a morale problem. Morale is only a symptom. You have to treat the root cause of the problem, not the symptom.”

Randy dragged a chair up front for Emily to sit. We were going to be there a while.