Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

Getting to the Defect

“So, how did it go?” I asked.

“I thought my team was on the edge of revolt,” she replied. “But, turns out, they solved the problem for me.”

“How did that happen?”

“I knew how I wanted this problem solved, but, instead of telling the team what to do, I just asked questions and listened. At first, the ideas went in the wrong direction, so I asked the question in a different way. I was surprised. They gave me the solution I was looking for. And, before I could say anything, they volunteered to fix the problem.

“It seems the defect on the plastic parts were all from the same lot number. Sherman volunteered to run the defective parts over a grinder to remove the burr, but it was Andrew who surprised me.

“He volunteered to call the molding company and find out what was causing the burr. In fact, he left the meeting for five minutes and had the answer. The molder knew there was a problem with that lot, but didn’t think it would matter. He has since fixed the problem, sending a short run over for us to inspect. Andrew said he would be standing by.”

“So, why does this surprise you?” I asked.

“Instead of a confrontation, turns out, all I had to do was ask two questions.”

“So, what are you going to do with the rest of your day?”

Most Difficult Thing To Do

Cheryl was impatient to get to her meeting. She knew how this get-together would be different. Her behavior would be the first to change. Instead of a one-way interaction, Cheryl planned to ask questions and listen.

“I know listening is important,” she said.

“It is the easiest thing to do and also the most difficult,” I prompted. “Tell me, what will you be listening for?”

“I will be listening for good ideas to solve this Quality Control issue,” Cheryl was quick to answer.

“That’s a good start, but the solution isn’t the hard part. Heck, they know the solution. The hard part is getting the solution executed. That’s where you have been getting push-back.”

Cheryl glanced at the ceiling, then at the table. “You’re right. The resistance has been implementing the inspection program. I will just have to try to understand their position better.”

“Cheryl, it’s more than listening for understanding. Understanding only gets you halfway there. You have to listen for discovery. You have to discover where their position intersects with your position. Only when you find that intersection, that common ground, can you begin a conversation to build the best solution. When you find that common ground, you will begin to build the trust necessary to gain the willing cooperation of your team.”

Cheryl lifted her pen to the paper on the table. She drew a line and wrote “the team.” She drew another line crossing and labeled it “me.” Where the lines intersected, she wrote “the starting place.”

A Curious Child

My coffee was piping hot, hazelnut with a little cream. Cheryl’s meeting was to start in a few minutes. She 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 be trying 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 Quality Control managers,” I said. “Curious children often invent interesting ways to solve problems.”

Listen More, Talk Less

“So, what are you going to do differently?” I asked. Cheryl had just received some brutally honest feedback from her team. Rather than become defensive, she was taking it to heart, a really tough move for Cheryl.

“As much as I know that I have things figured out,” she said, “that doesn’t seem to hold water around here.” Cheryl was truly struggling. She knew her team needed to make some changes, but she knew she had to make some changes first.

“So, what are you going to do differently?” I repeated.

“It’s almost like I have to do everything differently. The worst part is, that I can look at a problem and immediately know what to do. But I am going to have to lead my team through the problem solving process to make any headway with them. It just takes so much time.”

“Cheryl, sometimes you have to slow down before you can go fast?”

“I know,” she replied.

“So, what are you going to do differently?”

“First, I am going to have to listen more and talk less.”

“Good. When is your next team meeting?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Let’s meet about a half hour before and talk about how that meeting is going to be different.”

That Feeling in Your Stomach

Cheryl was waiting in the conference room when I arrived. I could see that her meeting had some unexpected twists.

“I felt like I had been fed to the wolves,” she started. “You were right, they said the problems with the finished goods were my problems. They said that I was responsible for the 2 percent increase in failure rate.”

I nodded. “So, how did your stomach feel?”

Cheryl looked genuinely pissed, but maintained her composure. “It was upside down. You could have cut the tension with a knife.”

“That’s good,” I said. “When your stomach is upside down, you are almost always talking about a real issue that needs to be out on the table.” Cheryl may have been looking for sympathy. “So, what did you say?”

“I practiced that stupid speech we talked about, so that is what I said. I told them that I needed their help. It felt strange. I didn’t like it. I felt like I was leaving my reputation totally in their hands. I felt like I was losing control.”

“And how did they respond?” I asked. “Did they argue with you?”

“Well, no,” Cheryl replied. “They were mostly silent. Then Hector pulled one of the parts from the reject pile. He pointed out a burr that was in the same place on every part. Sammy spoke up and said they had run short on that same part the week before. Get this. Because they were short, they used the rejected parts to finish the batch.

“They said they would have asked me what to do, but that I had been yelling at them, so they all kept quiet.” Cheryl stopped.

“It was a tough session?”

“It seems I was the problem. Yes, it was a tough session.”

Bring Value to Problem Solving

“What were the specific things your manager did that brought value to your problem solving and decision making?” I repeated. “We have already established that it is not barking orders, bossing you around or yelling at you when you screwed up.”

Kim had to think. She could easily tell me all the bad experience with previous managers, but, thinking about positive experience was much more difficult.

“There was this one time,” she started, “where I was working on a problem and I had no idea what to do next. After an hour thinking about it, I finally went to my manager, who I knew had all the answers. I expected to have the best solution right away, so I could get on with my job.”

“Apparently, that’s not what happened.” I said.

“Not at all. My manager asked me to describe the problem, asked me what I thought was causing the problem.”

“Sounds reasonable,” I agreed. “Your manager couldn’t give you the solution without understanding the problem.”

“Then, she asked me what the alternatives might be. She said I was closest to the problem, I probably had an idea how we might be able to solve the problem.”

“You said you had already been thinking about it for an hour and couldn’t come up with anything.”

“Yes, but that is because I was trying to come up with the perfect solution. My manager wanted a bunch of alternatives even if they weren’t perfect.”

“And?”

“Since I wasn’t looking for the perfect solution, I had four or five things that might work or might not work.”

“So?”

“So, my manager asked me, of all those alternatives, which had the best chance? Actually, I think they all would have failed, but if I put solution number two with solution number four, then it might work. So, she told me to go and try it, so I did and it worked.”

“So, your manager did not give you the answer. Didn’t tell you what to do, didn’t boss you around or yell at you?”

“Nope. Just brought value to my problem solving by asking questions.”

A Different Way to Think (About Projects)

“So, what’s your observation,” I asked. “Moving from a project manager in charge of three projects to a senior project manager in charge of 20 current projects, plus all the projects in the pipeline?”

Andrew looked down, studied the table. “Every single project has a beginning, middle and end. Each project has defined edges to it, resources are specific, and at the end, there is a finished project, very tangible.”

“And?”

“Twenty projects are all in different stages, it’s fluid, the boundaries move. Sure, we create artificial borders and artificial time frames to measure things, compare statistics. But, there is a difference in how you play one, two or three projects and how you play a portfolio of 20. In a portfolio, we may play for a high profile project with slim margins to raise the company’s visibility. We might attempt a new technology, in which we are currently clumsy, to practice, get better. A single project game might fail its gross margin, where a portfolio game might propel the company in a direction without competitors (at least for a while).”

“So, is this just about having more projects in a portfolio?”

“Not at all,” Andrew replied. “Having 20 projects pushed me to think differently, but, thinking differently is more about the timespan of decisions. And we have to do both. My project managers have to be focused on the individual project, and I have to be focused on the future.”

Out of the Chaos

“Managing 20 projects is different than managing three projects,” Andrew repeated. “And, it’s not just that there are more things to do.”

“How so?” I wanted to know.

“When, you have 20 simultaneous projects, you have to look for patterns. In each of the 20 projects, what is the same and what is different? There is no sense solving the same problem 20 times, when you can solve it once.”

“What else?”

“Every project has a start-up phase, mobilization. Every project has a conclusion, substantial completion, punch out and close-out. And, every project has interior milestones. So, there are patterns to find.”

“And?”

“And, if you recognize these patterns, you can build a system, a schematic, a flow chart that gives you a visual understanding how the components go together. In some cases, things become predictable, a natural sequence emerges. Some things can be done simultaneously, some things have to wait until something else is finished.”

“So, that’s the external stuff. What’s going on with you. What’s the inside story?”

Andrew stopped, looked down, then up. “Do I have what it takes. In the middle of the frenzy, will I get caught up in the weeds? Or will I have the fortitude to step back from the chaos and make mental sense of the noise?”

What’s New?

Problem solving at S-II works really well as long as we have solved the problem before. Elliott’s problem solving schema related to states of thinking –
S-I – Declarative (trial and error)
S-II – Cumulative (best practices)
S-III – Serial (root cause analysis, single system)
S-IV – Parallel (multi-system analysis)

S-II – Cumulative state is one of connection. Given a problem, a person with S-II capability can see the pattern causing the problem AND only has to match the pattern to an existing (documented) solution. This is the world of best practices. Best practices work well as long as the problem is one we have solved before. Forty percent of the population can effectively use best practices to solve problems (which is why “best practices” are so popular in management literature).

But, best practices are of little use if the problem is new (we have never solved it before).

S-III – Serial state is one of cause and effect. This is where NEW problems are solved. And, only 4-7 percent of the general population can effectively engage in root cause analysis. COVID-19 presents itself as a problem in all four states of thinking. Initially, COVID-19 was characterized as something we have seen before and could be dealt with using best practices (treat it like the flu). When it became apparent that the contagion rate was higher and the (yet to be defined) mortality rate was higher, the medical community responded with trial and error problem solving (S-I), recommending social distancing, initially no masks, then masks. Trial and error solutions became best practices and now the world is mask-wearing (go figure). But, root cause analysis (S-III) will provide the only inroads to a lasting solution (vaccine).

S-IV – Multi-system analysis will confront the longer term problems of vaccine distribution (capacities and priorities, medical systems) along with economic impacts (economic systems) and social behavior (social systems).

How much trouble do we create for ourselves when we mix up an S-I solution to an S-IV problem?

Structure and Creativity – Part II

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

This continues my response to the following question –

Question:
In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Response:
It is easy to fear organizational calcification. Much of management literature rails against terminology about command and control, even the subtle reporting relationship reeks iron fists and thumbs of oppression. This is why our understanding of functional organizational structure is so important. And important to you because of your interest, mandate that an organization be creative.

I define work narrowly looking at two things, decision making and problem solving. This discussion is to firmly attach creativity to decision making and problem solving, within the confines of a structure that eschews rigidity.

First, an exercise, in creativity. I ask a group of student within a 60-second period to name (write down) things that are round, as many as possible in 60-seconds. That’s the goal. You would assume those that name 30 are more creative than those that name six. I immediately get a question, “do you mean round and flat like a coin or round like a sphere?” I say, “there are no rules, no restrictions, it’s up to your own definition.” There is no structure to the exercise save the limit of time.

Inevitably, the clock winds down and most participants have a list of six to eight and most have a look of frustration on their face that they performed so dismally. I ask for sample responses –

  • ball
  • coin
  • planet
  • wheel
  • manhole cover
  • marble
  • watchface

Stop, time’s up!

Remember, the goal is to be as creative as possible and name as many as possible. I say, “ball. What about a tennis ball? A baseball? A basketball?”

“Wait, that’s cheating,” the group responds. I smile.

Here is the point. Instead of instructions where there is no structure, let me create a structure that guides you to be more creative.

Name as many coins that are round –

  • penny
  • nickel
  • dime
  • quarter
  • 50-cent piece
  • silver dollar
  • gold dubloon

Name as many planets that are round –

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Jupiter
  • Earth
  • Saturn

Name as many balls that are round –

  • tennis ball
  • baseball
  • basketball
  • bowling ball
  • golf ball
  • volleyball
  • cricket ball
  • soccer ball

The more structure in the assignment, the more creative, the more possibilities. This is a concept called idea fluency.

I need you to shift your understanding (not change, just shift) about organizational structure where we create working relationships between people where they engage in work using the fullest extent of their capability to make decisions and solve problems.

Elliott’s model helps us understand that there are different levels of decision making and different levels of problem solving. It is incumbent on every manager to understand those levels and engage the fullest capability of their team members in the work at hand.

Placing accountability for team output at the feet of the manager dramatically shifts managerial behavior to create more productive and creative working environments.