Tag Archives: problem solving

Move a Team Out of Its Mediocrity

“Why the long face?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Julia replied. “I have been working here for six months as a manager. And I feel like I have a mob on my hands. It’s almost like I need to dis-empower the team to get them to stop fighting me. I have a group of long time employees, comfortable in their mediocrity. They work together, almost as a team, to try to stop effective change or create resistance to it. They are very powerful for several reasons. First because we can’t fire them all and second because they have become a fixture in the organization and the idea of eliminating them is almost not an option.”

“Are there things that need improving around here?” I probed.

“Without a doubt. But, every time I suggest something, I get stiff-armed. Or they agree with me, and do the opposite behind my back.”

“Perhaps you should stop suggesting things,” I wondered out loud.

“But, we need to make changes in our processes, to become more efficient,” she protested.

“Who is going to execute those changes?” I wanted to know.

“Well, my team has to.”

“Then, who has to come up with the ideas and how to implement them? Here is a hint. The answer has nothing to do with ideas and execution. The answer has to do with your role as a manager.”

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

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
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.

Response:
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.

How Does Hierarchy Promote Cooperation?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I recently attended one of your Time Span workshops and want to know how hierarchy promotes cooperation?

Response:
The short answer is accountability.  Inherent in the structure of hierarchy is accountability.  Unfortunately, most managers misunderstand the purpose for hierarchy and where accountability is appropriately placed.

Most managers believe that hierarchy is a reporting structure.  Even our language misguides us.  “Who is the new guy going to report to?”  This is not the central question.

The definition of a manager is, that person held accountable for the output of other people.  The question is not “who should the new guy report to?”  The central question is, which manager can be held accountable for the new guy’s output?”

When managers begin to understand accountability, the whole game changes.  Hierarchy provides us with a visual representation, of which manager is accountable for the output of the team.

When managers begin to understand that they are accountable for the output of their team, attitudes change and behavior changes.  Behaviors change from controlling and directing to supporting and coaching.  Every employee is entitled to have a competent manager with the time span capability to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.

The purpose of hierarchy is to create that value stream, where managers, one stratum above (in capability) bring value to the problem solving and decision making of their team members.  For ultimately, it is the manager who is accountable for their output.

How Does a Non-Engineer Manager Bring Value to An Engineer Solving a Problem

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question – 
You said yesterday, that a non-engineer can be a manager to an engineer.  How could that work?  I remember you said that one purpose for a manager, is to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of the team member.  How can a non-engineer manager bring value to the decision making and problem solving of an engineer?

Response-
I will assume that an engineer can make decisions and solve problems that are clearly within their defined level of work, or they wouldn’t be in the role in the first place.  Further, I assume the engineer may need managerial support for tough problems and tough decisions.

Your question is, how can a non-engineer manager bring value to an engineer attempting to solve a tough engineering problem?

The most effective managers are those that ask the most effective questions.

  • Describe the problem, what do you observe?
  • What are the possible causes of the problem?
  • Have we solved this problem before?
  • What are the alternative solutions?
  • Of those alternative solutions, which will most likely address the underlying cause of the problem?
  • How will you test the solution to determine if that will solve the problem?
  • If you test the solution and it doesn’t work, will it cause more damage?
  • How will you mitigate the damage so the problem doesn’t get worse?

A manager does not have to be an engineer to ask these questions.  Would these questions have been of value in the roll-out of a complicated website?

 

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.

How to Create Individual Accountability

One by one, each team member volunteered some specific action where they had contributed to an overall slowdown in throughput on the floor. Julia listened well. Ed wrote the ideas on the board.

The group had come full circle to Ralph, the remaining hold-out. “Well, I still don’t think I contributed to the problem. But if I did contribute, the only thing I can think of, is that, about a year and a half ago, I stopped filling out the weekly production schedule. Things had become so routine, I didn’t think we needed it. I am not sure that we need it now, but, anyway, that’s my idea.”

“Thank you, Ralph,” Julia said softly. “Ed, write that up on the board.” She looked around the room. They had added eleven more ideas to the original sixteen. But these were different.

“I want to thank you all for taking this first step. We have 27 things we need to look at, but more importantly, you, as a team, are now in position to make something happen. Until this morning, you all thought the problem was with a machine or a batch of bad materials. Only in the past few minutes, you each talked about how you, individually, were responsible for the way we work.

“It is only when you understand that you are responsible for the problem, that you can take responsibility for fixing the problem. I can’t fix it, only you can fix it. As a team, we are ready to take the next steps. Let’s take a break. See you back here in ten minutes.”

How to Get a Team to Grapple with the Real Issue

Ralph began to fidget. By all counts, things should be better than ever. Volume in the department was up, but profitability was sinking. Julia, the new department manager had put the issue on the table. “How do we get the red line to turn up?”

She had warned me earlier that there would be friction. “Things get uncomfortable. Your stomach turns upside down. But you know you are dealing with real issues when your stomach is upside down.

“We can go one of two ways. We can avoid the issue so our stomachs feel better. Or we can work through the issue and make real improvements.”

Ralph spoke up first. “Well, I think we need a new machine on the line. We were promised a new machine by our last manager, but he got fired before we got it. I think our problems would be solved if we just got the new machine.”

In my briefing before the meeting, Julia told me they would blame the problem on one of the older machines. Truth be told, she said, that old machine had more uptime than any of the other equipment on the floor. There were never any materials stacked in front of it waiting. The old machine was definitely not the bottleneck, it was just an excuse covering up the problem somewhere else.

“Ed, write that on the board,” said Julia.

“Write what?” said Ed. “You mean the machine. I don’t think the machine is the problem.”

“Doesn’t matter. Ralph thinks it might be the problem. We are going to look at it, so write it up on the board. Alright, who has the next idea? How do we get the red line to turn up?”

Capability in the Team

I was talking with Claude, a supervisor, about his team. “Those two over there, are the new guys, one has been here a month, the other just got out of orientation last week. They are learning, but it will take them a while to catch on to how we do things around here.”

“How often do you have to check up on them?” I asked.

“In the morning, we go over the work orders from the production schedules. A little huddle meeting. I check back in about 15 minutes to make sure they are moving in the right direction. Then, they’re good for a couple of hours. Right now, I am not as worried about their production output as much as doing the work correctly.”

“And the rest of your team?”

“The rest of the crew has been here at least a year, some, four or five years. They know what to do. For them, our morning huddle is as much social as it is to look at production for the day. I walk the floor a couple of times, morning and afternoon, just to see if they have questions, admire some of their handiwork.”

“When they run into a problem, how do they solve it?” I pressed.

“There are some things they can try, but if they can’t figure it out pretty quickly, they either come to Tony, or me?” Claude replied.

“Tony?”

“Tony is the team leader. Sharp kid. Only been here two years, great technician, twenty-eight years old.”

“So, how does Tony solve problems?” I was curious.

“Same as the other guys, but he is quick. If one solution doesn’t work, he has something else to try. If that doesn’t work, he tries something else. Boom, boom, boom, problem is usually solved. When I have to be out of the office, or on vacation, Tony is my assistant. I can leave him in charge, and not worry. But Tony won’t be with us much longer.”

“Why’s that?”

“I was talking with my manager. She has had her eye on Tony since the beginning, thinks he ready for supervisor training?”
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The Value of a Question

“Bring value to the decision making and problem solving of my team. Easy to say, but how do you do that?” Jeanine protested.

“Look, I don’t even work here. You call me in as a consultant, because you are having difficulty with something. Do I come in here and tell you what to do, how to do your job?” I asked.

“No, you’re right, you don’t work here. You may be familiar with our systems, but you don’t know any of the real technical stuff. You couldn’t begin to tell me how to do my job,” Jeanine smiled.

“I agree. But you call me in, nevertheless. Would you say I bring value to your problem solving and decision making?”

“Yes, or I wouldn’t have called you,” she flatly stated.

“But, I don’t tell you what to do?” I repeated.

“No.” Jeanine’s eyes darted to the ceiling.

“So, how do I do that? I don’t tell you what to do, yet, somehow, I bring value to your decision making.”

“Well, you ask a lot of questions,” Jeanine blurted.

“So, to clarify, I don’t bring value by telling you what to do, but I bring value by asking questions?”

“You’re telling me,” Jeanine started slowly, “that I don’t bring value to my team by telling them what to do, but that, as a manager, I bring value by asking questions.”