Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

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.”

The Fear in Contribution

“Does anyone have any ideas about how we can solve this problem?” Wayne asked. The team just sat there, staring at him with lizard eyes, fixated, motionless. Sure, it was Wednesday (hump day), but the atmosphere was limp.

It was like throwing a party where no one shows up. You think you have done your job as a manager, assembling the troops to solve a problem, but you get no response from the team.

It’s not lethargy and your people are not stupid. I find the biggest problem is fear. Fear that their idea will be seen as inadequate or silly.

Prime the pump. Simple solution. Pair everyone up. Have team members work two by two for a brief period of time (brief, like 45 seconds), then reconvene the group. Working in pairs takes the fear out. People can try on their thoughts in the privacy of a twosome before exposing the idea to the group. Primes the pump every time.

By Design

“I keep telling my team that we need to be proactive,” Lonnie said. He wasn’t defensive, but you could tell he wasn’t having any fun.

“So, tell me what happens?” I asked.

Lonnie shook his head. “It’s just day after day. The problems jump up. You know, it’s not like we don’t have a clue. We know what problems customers are going to have. Heck, we even know which customers are going to call us. We just don’t ever get ahead of the curve.”

“Lonnie, being reactive is easy. It doesn’t require any advance thinking, or planning, or anticipating. Being reactive just happens.

“Being proactive, however, requires an enormous amount of conscious thinking. It doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen. You have to make it happen by design.

“At the beginning of the day, I want you to gather your team together. Show them a list of the work you are doing for the day and for which customers. Then ask these two questions.
–What could go wrong today?
–What can we do to prevent that from going wrong?”

Lonnie smiled. “That’s it?” he asked.