Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

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.

Blame Game

It is important to understand the problem. Even more important to understand the cause of the problem.

Many people confuse the cause of the problem with blame. Blame, no matter how well placed, rarely gets you closer to the solution, even creates distraction that prevents forward steps.

In what way can we fix (mitigate, prevent) the problem is a more useful question.

Value of Advice

Rory would not be deterred. “But, I am young, and, you are experienced. I have listened to you before and your advice has been helpful.”

“I am flattered,” I replied. “But, better to clarify your own understanding of the problem than to take my word for it. My advice is worth no more than you are able to make of it.”

Stuck in a Dilemma

“I am stuck in a dilemma,” Rory explained. “It’s a quandary, so I have come for your advice.”

“And, you think I can help you?” I replied.

“You always have before.”

“I think you are mistaken. I can help you clarify your thinking, but as for my advice, it is only good for me. I can only tell you what I know based on my experience. What you need to know will be based on your experience. I can help you understand your experience, but, your problem, your dilemma will still be yours.”

How Was I Supposed to Know?

“And, what was your contribution to the problem,” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Mason responded. “I didn’t even know about it for two days.”

“As a manager, you always have contribution. The only way to an effective solution is make sure that you are not part of the problem. So, what was your contribution to the problem?”

“I’m still not sure what you mean,” Mason replied.

“Let’s see,” I started. “How about these, for contribution –

  • You put pressure on the sales team to find new customers.
  • You designed the production process without a provision for expediting an order, including notifications should an order be expedited.
  • You designed a production process where expedited orders derail current production output.
  • You designed a min/max for raw inventory, with re-order thresholds that allowed for out-of-stock.

“You can stop,” Mason protested. “How was I supposed to know this would happen?”

“Exactly. How were you supposed to know?”

The Problem We Name

“You said you had one problem, but you were able to tell me several more,” I started. “Here’s the list –

  • An upset customer.
  • A RUSH order that delayed other orders.
  • A rogue salesperson that went around protocol.
  • A quality inspection process that wasn’t followed.
  • A shortage of raw materials with a lead time.

“Yep, I think you got them all,” Mason shook his head.

“And, I asked you which problem you were going to solve, knowing that everyone on your team, and everyone on the sales team sees the problem in a different way. Even the customer sees the problem in a different way.”

“And, I was just thinking last week that everything was under control,” Mason surmised.

“So, which problem are you going to solve? You see, each stakeholder sees the problem differently because they see the solution (that they want) differently. Each stakeholder would name the problem differently because they each see a different solution. The problem we name is the problem we solve.”

Which Problem?

“I have a problem,” Mason explained. “We just produced a batch of 1000 parts that are all defective.”

“Tell me more?” I asked.

“It was a RUSH order for a new customer. Came in at the last minute, the salesperson wanted to impress, so he worked around all our procedures and expedited the order, against all caution.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“The problem is we have an upset customer for that order and now we are late on all the other orders that were already in the queue.”

“And?”

“And, I have a rogue salesperson who doesn’t follow protocol,” Mason backpedaled.

“And?”

“And, we have a quality problem on first-piece-inspections.”

“And?”

“And, now we are out-of-stock on raw material because we used it all up for this rush order, with a three day lead-time.”

“So, which problem are you going to solve?”

When Did This Start?

Marvin was not in his office when I arrived. It didn’t take long to find him among a group of people desperately trying to solve a problem with a machine on the floor.

“It’s always something,” Marvin said. “Just when we get one problem solved, it seems like something else goes out of whack. We are trying to figure out why this thing won’t maintain the pressures we need.”

“When did all this start?”

“Weird, it started just a couple of months ago. We have been making these units this way for ten years. We have tweaked almost every parameter and this guitar is so out of tune, it sounds sick.”

“So, what are the factory defaults on the unit? What are the baselines?” I asked. Marvin just stood there. You could see the blood draining from his face.

“Well?” I said.

Marvin shook his head. “You are suggesting we clear the decks and go back to square one?”

Twenty minutes later, after restoring the defaults and making three adjustments, the machine was holding tolerance. For the first time in two months.

Often, we try to solve the wrong problem.

One Crab in the Basket

“All my team wants to do is complain. I know things aren’t perfect, but we still have to get the work done. They shoot down every idea I have,” Chet shook his head.

“Have you ever been crabbing?” I asked. “Crabbing, you know, where you trap crabs, pull them out of the water and throw them into a basket?”

Chet looked at me a bit sideways. “What’s that got to do with my team?”

“Here’s the thing, Chet. If you only have one crab in the basket, you have to really pay attention, because the crab will crawl out of that basket lickety-split. The trick is to catch more crabs quickly. With a bunch of crabs, when one starts to crawl out, the other crabs attach to the legs and pull him back into the basket. You would think they would all try to crawl out, but that’s not what happens. Sometimes, teams are the same way.

“Before you describe a possible solution, go around the table and have each team member describe the major benefits if we are successful at solving the problem. If you can get them to focus on the benefits, they are less likely to focus on the crab (you) trying to crawl out of the basket.”

It’s a Different Level of Work

As Phillip simmered, he finally blurted out, “But they should know how to schedule. How hard is that?”

“I don’t know, Phillip. How complicated are your scheduling logistics?” I asked.

“It’s just getting the materials and the people scheduled. How hard could it be.” Phillip was firm.

“What is the biggest problem they face in scheduling?”

Phillip thought for a minute, hoping to tell me there were never problems, but he knew better. “I guess the biggest problem is coordinating with the other subs on the job, to make sure their work is finished and the project is ready for the work we do. Since the subs don’t work for us, coordinating is sometimes difficult.”

“So, how do you train your PMs to deal with that?”

“Train ’em. They’re just supposed to know that they have to go check.” It was not a good answer and Phillip began to backpedal.

I pressed. “On the job, do materials ever get back-ordered? Does a crew member ever call in sick or a whole crew get reassigned to an emergency? Does the contractor ever change something without a change order? Does a piece of heavy equipment get delayed on another project and not show up? Does a dumpster load sometimes not get switched out in time. Does a code inspector sometimes not show up?

“Tell me, Phillip. How do you train your Project Managers to create and maintain schedules?”

Phillip hesitated. He knew any response would just sound like an excuse.

“Phillip, here is the critical factor. Actually doing the work is completely different from making sure the work gets done. It’s a different role in the company. It has its own skill set. You didn’t hire for it, you didn’t train for it, and, right now, it’s killing you.”