Tag Archives: problem solving

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?”

How to Define Decision Making in a Role

In a role, until we identify the specific decisions to be made and specific problems to be solved, the hiring manager will never hire the right person. This is not magic.

For a technician –
In this key area, what are the decisions that have to be made?
What is the time frame for those decisions?

  • Am I working fast enough to accomplish the output assigned to me today?
  • Does my output meet the quality spec assigned to the work today?
  • Does my attention to quality slow down my output?
  • If I work faster, does quality suffer?

In this key area, what problems have to be solved?
What is the time frame for those solutions?

  • Is this machine noise normal or abnormal?
  • If the machine noise is abnormal, do I need to shut the machine down, now?
  • Can I wait to shut down the machine when it finishes its current cycle?
  • Can I wait to shut down the machine at the end of my shift? And then, call maintenance?

For a project manager –
In this key area, what are the decisions that have to be made?
What is the time frame of those decisions?

  • Is the average output of production this week, sufficient to meet the output target for the month?
  • If output will fall short, what things can I shift in production to speed things up overall? More hands on deck? Overtime?
  • If output will overshoot, are we cutting corners in quality? Did I overestimate resources required? Can I temporarily reassign team members to another area?
  • If output will overshoot, are we using up raw materials in one process that may be needed in another process? What are the lead times on the raw materials? Re-order thresholds?

In this key area, what problems have to be solved?
What is the time frame for those solutions?

  • How often will we sample output for quality problems?
  • In what step of each process do we sample output for quality problems?
  • Should we discover a quality problem, what is our first step to prevent more output that does not meet spec?
  • When we solve a quality problem, how does that change our sample frequency?

It’s all about the work. Every role contains appropriate problem solving and decision making.

Four Power Questions Before the Interview

It’s all about the work. Most managers make hiring mistakes because they didn’t know what they were looking for in the first place.

  • How to know what you are looking for?
  • How to transform that vague picture into specific deliverables?
  • How to communicate that picture and deliverables to the hiring team, to make sure you are right?

I will know it when I see it, sets up the hiring manager for failure. Success is based on luck.

Work is a funny notion. Many managers focus on getting in touch with candidates, all warm and fuzzy. Not my purpose. Instead, get in touch with reality. The purpose of hiring is to get some work done.

Work is making decisions and solving problems. Few hiring managers think about the problems that have to be solved and the decisions that have to be made in a team member’s role. That is where it starts. The hiring manager is looking for someone to make specific decisions and solve specific problems. Until we figure that out, we will never hire the right person.

Here are the power questions to answer before you get into the interview room –

  • In this key area, what decisions have to be made?
  • What is the time frame for those decisions?
  • In this key area, what problems have to be solved?
  • What is the time frame for those solutions?

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.

How Culture Touches the Work

Culture is that unwritten set of rules that defines and enforces the required behaviors in the work that we do together. Many things we do are written down and comprise our standard operating procedures. But most things are unwritten. And, when we think of culture, here are some things that are often missed.

  • Who can belong to our team? (Membership)
  • Who has the authority to make decisions, in what situations?
  • How are team members given work assignments?
  • How often are team members given work assignments?
  • Do team members depend on work product from other team members?
  • How do team members hand off work to other team members? (Integration)
  • When a team member completes a work assignment, how does their supervisor know?
  • When a team member completes a work assignment, how do they know what to work on next?
  • Does anyone review or inspect their work?
  • How often is their work reviewed or inspected?
  • Are they permitted to continue on additional work before their current work has been reviewed?
  • Do they work on multiple assignments simultaneously?

The people system is the most important system you work on. This is just the start.

Meetings De-Railed

“I’m tired of my team, whining and complaining in meetings. Then, they look at me, like I have to come up with the solution,” Janet shook her head.

“How are you going to fix that?” I asked.

“Not sure, every meeting seems to get de-railed.”

“Then why don’t you de-rail the meeting. Before the whining begins, re-state the purpose for the meeting (the problem to be solved), and ask everyone to write down two possible solutions. Only give them 45 seconds, they don’t need a long time.

This accomplishes two things:
1. It points everyone in the direction of a solution before the conversation has a chance to get de-railed.
2. It communicates that it is the responsibility of every team member to contribute in the solving of a problem.”