Tag Archives: problem solving

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


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


“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.”

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.

All Problems Are Not Created Equal

This is a series on Teal and Levels of Work. Here is the backstory for the series in case you are interested in the context. The purpose for the series is to explore the tenets of Teal through the lens of Levels of Work.
Humor me. To see Levels of Work (Requisite Organization), as a hierarchy based on problem solving complexity (rather than power), opens up a different texture of organizational structure. Let me quickly sport a reference chart below to demonstrate the discontinuous complexity underpinning Levels of Work. I assume you agree, some problems are more complex than others, all problems are not created equal.

Level-I (S-I) – Declarative problem solving. This is the world of opinion, without the necessity of supporting evidence. The world is the way it is, simply because it is declared to be so. Problem solving methodology at this level of work is trial and error. Trial and error is a valid problem solving method, it just has a high error rate in the face of increasing complexity. If S-I was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “or-or.” S-I is a disjunctive (disconnected) way of seeing the world.

Level-II (S-II) – Cumulative problem solving. If S-I struggles to connect the dots, S-II succeeds in making those connections. Cumulative means connection by successive addition. Problem solving occurs by connecting the pattern in a problem with a documented solution. Best-practices is an S-II problem solving method. If S-II was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “and-and.” S-II is a conjunctive (connected) way of seeing the world.

Level-III (S-III) – Serial problem solving. This is where Elliott observed the first instance of cause and effect. Problem solving occurs through a process of root cause analysis. If S-III was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “if-then,” cause and effect. This problem solving method is required in the construction of a system (sequence of steps in a process yielding consistent and predictable results, a critical path).

Level-IV (S-IV) – Parallel problem solving acknowledges the existence of multiple simultaneous systems that co-exist in proximity. In the same proximity, each critical path may not intersect, but each system’s capacity has an impact on neighboring systems. Problem solving multi-system impact requires systems analysis, specifically – capacity, constraints, delay and throughput. If S-IV was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “if-and-only-if, then.” This level of work manages problems with multiple simultaneous variables and increasing ambiguity of outcomes.

So, what does this problem-complexity have to do with Laloux and Teal?

You have to read carefully (Reinventing Organizations), but Laloux identifies these specific levels of problem solving quite clearly – Another cognitive breakthrough is the ability to reason in paradox, transcending the simple either-or with more complex both-and thinking.

As he describes the organizational period of magenta, he makes the following observation –
Cause and effect are poorly understood, and so the universe is full of spirits and magic.

Cause and effect finally comes of age in Laloux’s description – At the Conformist-Amber stage, reality is perceived through Newtonian eyes. Cause and effect are understood, people can grasp linear time (past, present, future) and project into the future. Laloux’s observation is quite consistent with the timespan schema in Levels of Work, that a measure of problem solving is based on a person’s capability to operate in the ambiguity of the future.

So, Laloux clearly observes problem solving through the first three Levels of Work, without realizing how close he came to solving the puzzle of hierarchy. These nested relationships** replace the power hierarchy with an accountability hierarchy. Indeed, Elliott described this organizational form with the acronym MAH (Management Accountability Hierarchy).

I think the issue of accountability will be next on our agenda.

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**Nested relationships was brilliantly described in this article by Richard Bartlett

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.