Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

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.

Any Decision, Any Problem

Think about any decision. You have to think about, not only the consequences of that decision immediately, but also the consequences in a month, three months or a year. An immediate positive consequence may create the circumstance for a negative consequence in three months time.

Same thing goes for a problem to be solved. You have to think about, not only the consequences of that solution in the near term, but the consequences in a month, three months or a year. An immediate solution may create the circumstances for a larger problem in three months time.

Take a high mileage vehicle and extend its preventive maintenance cycle by 30 days. You will save the cost of a maintenance cycle. In three months time, you will not likely notice any difference, but over two years time, you may experience catastrophic vehicle failure. And, it may not just be the cost of the repair, but the delay in the critical path of a project (just to save an oil change).

A World That No Longer Exists

Best Practices are based on past experience, a best practice to a problem that we already solved. Necessary but not sufficient.

Past experience may be helpful, but seldom covers all the bases. Past experience seldom anticipates change and often misses critical elements that will be different in the future.

Best Practices are what we teach in school. Those who live by Best Practices will find themselves perfectly equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Accomplishment always happens in the future.

Whose Idea Is It, Anyway?

“But, I am the manager. Everyone is counting on me,” Bryce pushed back.

“Then, why are you in here, by yourself?” I asked.

“I have a problem to solve. It’s a serious problem. Everyone is counting on me to solve the problem. It is my responsibility.”

“Is it your responsibility to solve the problem with the best solution you can come up with, or the best solution to the problem? Have you thought about stepping outside yourself, asking for help, other perspectives? Yes, you are accountable for the best solution, but, no one said it had to be your idea.”

I Already Had the Answer

“So, you didn’t like the idea?” I asked.

“No, and I should have listened to my sales-guy,” Rory replied. “We spent a bunch of engineering time creating a perfect solution that the customer didn’t want. We thought the prototype would WOW them to our way of thinking. All it did, was drive them to our competitor.”

“If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?”

“First, I would listen. Before the problem was completely explained, I thought I already had the answer. I missed some key elements in the problem.”

“And, what else?”

“I think,” Rory glanced to the ceiling and back to me, “that I have to suspend my own judgement for a while. I have to see the problem from the customer’s perspective. Until I can see that, I will make the decision according to my criteria, instead of developing criteria from the customer’s perspective.”

The problem you solve is the problem you name. Make sure you name the right problem. -Pat Murray

What Else Do You Need to Know?

Before you make any decision, before you solve any problem –

  • What do you need to know, to more clearly understand the problem?
  • Does what you know point to the symptom of the problem, or point to the cause the problem?
  • If you gave the cause of the problem a name, what would be its name?
  • What else do you need to know, to more clearly understand the cause of this problem you named?
  • Do you know enough about the cause of the problem to generate a plausible solution, or do you need to know more?
  • How would you explain the cause of the problem to someone else?
  • If you were someone else, how would you understand the cause of the problem differently?
  • If you were someone else, what other alternatives would you suggest?
  • As you consider these alternatives, could some be combined? Could you take the front end of one idea and patch it to the back end of another?
  • What would happen if you ran an alternative backward or upside-down?

Sometimes, solving a problem has more to do with questions than answers.