Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

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.

What do I Listen For? In the Interview?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

It was a pleasure meeting you last Thursday and even more so, hearing your ideas. Much of what you discuss is very similar to my own beliefs, but it was very instructive to hear them so clearly explained and validated. Taking the ideas from theory to practice, how do you use the diagnostic interview to hire someone who may have worked in a completely different field, or even not really worked before?

The critical role requirements in higher stratum roles depend less on technical skills and more on managerial skills. In large part, managerial skills transfer well from one business model to another.

In any interview, I am specifically listening for the candidate’s description of the work. In that description, I am listening for the Level of Work. Specifically –

  • Elapsed time – related to the Time Span of Projects. What was the length of their longest project?
  • The Story – beginning, middle and end. Where does the story of their work begin and where does the story of their work end?
  • Level of Work – specifically –
    • Individual direct output (S-I)
    • Coordination of many elements, including the supervision of outputs of others (S-II)
    • Creation of single serial systems, work flows for efficiency, consistency and predictability (S-III)
    • Integration of multiple systems and sub-systems (S-IV)

While I am listening for clues about the Level of Work, I am also evaluating effectiveness, based on the candidates description related to the Level of Work. This is where the assessment of a candidate from a different field will require additional judgment on the part of the interviewer. Here are some questions behind the questions –

  • How well do the behaviors described in the candidates field translate to our critical role requirements?
  • How effective will this candidate be in adapting habits and behaviors from their former work to our work?
  • How effective will this candidate be in learning new skills identified in our critical role requirements?

Where the candidate has NO work experience, just coming out of school, I will still ask questions related to circumstances where the candidate was making decisions and solving problems. How did they organize their schoolwork? Extracurricular activities? Volunteer work? There is always something that will reveal Applied Capability, suitability for a role.

What is Work?

“What’s the Level of Work?” I asked.

Arianne puzzled her face. “We’re looking at two roles. One is a finish carpenter and the other is a machine operator. The carpenter is finishing wood products within one sixteenth of an inch. The machine operator is working to tolerances of four decimal places. I would say the machine operator role is a higher level of work, it’s more precise.”

“Is it a higher level?” I insisted.

Arianne paused, “I guess I am just thinking out loud. I don’t know.”

“As a manager, working with a team member, after you have provided work instructions, what is the most valuable thing to talk about?”

“Working through things that aren’t in the instructions,” Arianne was quick to respond. “Talking about the problems that might occur, and the decisions that might pop up.”

“And that’s how I measure the Level of Work. What are the problems to be solved and the decisions to be made? These require judgment on the part of the team member, and that’s where the complexity of the work is revealed. The machine operator may be working to four decimal places, but the machine is making the cuts according to a computer program. The finish carpenter, working to one-sixteenth of an inch is taking manual measurements and constantly using judgment. The likelihood of field adjustments and variance in materials is high.

“Working with my team, the most important discussion is -what decisions do you have to make in the course of your work. What problems do you have to solve?”

Creating the Crucible

How often do we sit in meetings, watching people check out? Fred surreptitiously checks e-mail on his Blackberry when he thinks no one is looking. One ear open to the meeting, one eyed glancing at a report he was supposed to review yesterday. Jill brazenly has her laptop open on the table, supposedly taking notes of the meeting. A sideways glance shows she is downloading e-mail and checking her horoscope.

Who is responsible for creating a different atmosphere, a different context? Who is responsible for creating the crucible in which a problem can be explored, alternatives generated and a solution selected? Who is responsible for creating the kind of meeting where each team member is engaged from beginning to end? Who indeed?

If that’s you in the mirror, the next question is “how?” How can you create maximum participation from every person in the room? How can you create full engagement?

Dolts and Zombies

“I know you think your solution is better than anything your team might come up,” I agreed. “Do you think that is really the point?”

Gretchen was resisting. “But, I don’t have time to have a meeting, and besides, I don’t think my team wants to be creative. Sometimes they act like dolts.”

“They act like dolts when you solve a problem like this for them?”

“Well, yeah. I can solve problems like this pretty easy. I have been in the business for six years. I have the experience. But when I tell them what to do, they’re like zombies from the Night of the Living Dead. Some of them walk around like they still don’t know what to do, even though I gave them the solution.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“Like I said, I just don’t think they care,” Gretchen insisted.

“You are right. They don’t care about your solution.”

This caught Gretchen off-guard. She didn’t expect me to agree so easily. “They don’t care about your solution,” I repeated. “So, who’s solution do they care about?”

“Well, I’m the only one who can solve the problem,” Gretchen tersely replied.

“Indeed?” -TF

Curiousity Doesn’t Kill the Cat

Cheryl was determined to turn things around with her team. She was hired as a troubleshooter in Quality Control, but finding the problem and fixing the problem are two different things.

“So today, you said you were going to listen?” I asked.

Cheryl nodded “Yes.”

“What position will you be listening from?”

The question caught Cheryl off-guard. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The way we see the world is often influenced by our position. In fact, you have listened to your team before, but you were listening from a position of judgment, so you didn’t hear what they had to say.” I stopped to let that sink in. “What position will you be listening from today?” I repeated.

“I guess I will try to understand their point of view.”

“Not bad, but not aggressive enough to be effective. What position do you want to be listening from?”

Cheryl was stumped. “Curiosity?” she finally blurted out.

I nodded. “So, when you sit in your meeting today, you will be listening from the position of a curious child?”

Cheryl smiled.

“And curious children always have a lot more fun than stuffy old Quality Control managers,” I said. “And curious children often invent interesting ways to solve problems.”

Solving Problems in Different Ways

I sat back. Roy sat back. “In what way can I challenge their thinking without telling them they are wrong,” he repeated, to himself.

“Well?” I waited.

“Okay, I guess I could ask them questions about how they arrived at their conclusion.”

“And what else?” I prodded.

“You mean you want me to think of more ways to challenge them?” Roy chided.

“Sure. What if the first way doesn’t work? You are a manager. You need more than one way to move your team.”

It took another ten minutes, but here is the list Roy came up with.

“I can ask them –

  • What they saw that led them to that solution?
  • What they heard that led them to that solution?
  • To describe the impact of their solution after a week?
  • To go away and come back with three other alternative solutions?
  • If their solution solves the real problem or only a symptom of the problem?
  • What is the underlying cause of the problem we are trying to solve?

There are many ways to bring value to your team. The most effective is by asking questions that move them to solve problems in different ways.

Combining Ideas

“How do I best explain it?” asked Glenn. “I need the team to meet the output goals, but be efficient while they are doing it.”

“Let’s start with a different explanation,” I replied. “You sound as if, meeting output goals, and being efficient, work against each other.”

“I did?” Curtis pushed back.

“Yes, you said, meet output goals, but be efficient. You are trying to balance one against the other, as if it is win-lose or lose-win.”

Glenn’s attention was focused, so I continued.

“You want to meet output goals, and be efficient. It’s not one or the other. You can have both. In fact, the more efficient the production, the more the output. Instead of using the word but, replace it with the word and.”

Often, the solution to a problem emerges not from choosing between ideas, but combining ideas. Explaining the difference can be as simple as replacing a word.

It’s Your Committee

From the Ask Tom mailbag:


I need to design an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for procurement of goods and services and inventory management.

We have the Factory Manager and the Purchasing Manager who are more interested in establishing their supremacy.

We need to design a clear cut process that supports our systems.


The Factory Manager and the Purchasing Manager are only doing what you told them to do. The Factory Manager is to produce a high quality product as efficiently and profitably as possible. The Purchasing Manager is to purchase raw materials and services that meet the minimum specification at the lowest possible cost.

Sometimes those agendas are in conflict. This is actually normal.

However, it is your responsibility to integrate these two agendas, meet their essential requirements and orchestrate the solutions where there are differences.

  1. Convene a committee. Make it clear that it is YOUR committee and that while you are asking for input and analysis, YOU will make the final decisions as to what will be included or excluded from the SOP.
  2. The committee will contain three or five individuals. The Factory Manager, the Purchasing Manager and an additional Administrative Manager at their level. If the Factory Manager and the Purchasing Manager each need an assistant, then you have five on the committee.
  3. The Factory Manager and the Purchasing Manager will be tasked with separately creating a list of requirements and submitting them at a meeting (without you) to be conducted by the Administrative Manager. The Administrative Manager will be tasked with collecting those requirements, holding a discussion and writing the first draft of the SOP.
  4. You will review the first draft and submit your written comments back to the committee so the Administrative Manager can complete the final draft.
  5. You convene a meeting to congratulate the team for producing the SOP.
  6. Schedule a review meeting for 90 days to review how the SOP has worked and solicit input for additional changes. The SOP should be calendared for review every 6-12 months.

Keep us updated. -TF

A Manager’s Solution

“So, the Supervisor’s solution to fuel pricing cost more money in overtime and extra travel distance to the cheapest pump?” I nodded. “What would have been a Manager’s solution? You’re a Manager, what would you have done?”

“I actually did step in. It took us three months to figure out the problem was getting worse. The solution wasn’t in finding the lowest pump price for the day. We had to look at our system and think in a longer time frame. The Time Span for this task wasn’t a day, or even a week, it was 12 months.”

“What was the long term solution?”

“I got a fuel price, not the cheapest one, but one I could lock in on a 3 month contract for a tanker to be parked in our truck yard. I got three options going forward that capped a price escalation. That sets us for the year.

“We have a night security employee in the yard who now has something to do at night. He drives the tanker around and fills the trucks with fuel. The drivers come in at their regular time and the truck is all ready to go.

“The Supervisor’s solution about find the cheapest fuel price wasn’t the answer. It was looking at our system of fueling trucks.”