To Improve Faster, Choose The Right Problem To Solve

Smart humans do dumb things. Especially when we take action on something before understanding what problems lurk beneath their surface.

As Humorist, Erma Bombeck, once said, “The grass is always greener elsewhere.” To which I’ll add, “Until you discover it’s over your own septic tank.”

But by then it’s too late. You’ve built your beautiful lawn in precisely the wrong spot. Trust me, someday you’ll have to take the lid off your own tank to deal with problems. It won’t be pretty.

Does your culture feel the same way? Have you painted a beautiful portrait of your life in your mind, but for employees, clearly, you’re no Rembrandt?

Don’t be embarrassed. A few years back I discovered an old septic system under my garden.  Don’t believe me? I’ll send you pictures of the look on my wife’s face when I showed her my colossal mistake. After she spent months canning my tastiest tomatoes and had already shipped them to my now former family members and friends.

Smart humans do dumb things. Especially when we take action on something before understanding what problems lurk beneath their surface. More often than not we spend too much time solving the wrong problem and create an even bigger problem. Perhaps an even bigger problem is when we think we have no problems––which as my wife reminds me constantly, is my really, big problem.

Early in my career, my journey as a management consultant took me into hundreds of organizations. Being both young and dumb but still believing I was “really smart,”  I found myself eager to jump right into any problem then solving that problem.

That experience taught me four things.

1. Be prepared emotionally before you open a septic tank of problems. Change is brutally hard and painful. And it’s smellier than you think.

2. Don’t solve other people’s problems for them. Psychological studies show we retain what we’re learning when three distinct behaviors are in place. 1. We have ownership of or connection to a problem. 2. We feel free to solve the problem. 3. We feel competent in our ability to create and test our own solutions to those problems.

3. Learn how to identify problem(s) which yield the highest leverage fastest before you jump in the tank. For example, if people and teams don’t trust one another or they fear the boss, restoring trust and eliminating fear will yield higher leverage to a management system than fixing machines.

4. Be aware of what psychologists refer to as the “Fundamental Attribution Error” (FAE). FAE is the natural human tendency to assign blame to a person rather than a system and problem’s true cause(s). As a CEO it’s highly likely that at some point you’ll experience subordinates assigning the cause of problems on people rather than assigning the true cause within the system. Be prepared in advance when the Fundamental Attribution Error strikes. It helps overcome the tendency to jump onto the same bandwagon.

As a young consultant years ago, I began developing a new relationship with a client. He was excited about improving his company. The client had been bleeding financially, was losing employees, and owed back taxes. Machines weren’t being maintained and routinely broke down. And employees were litigating for back wages and previously uninsured workers compensation claims.

Not knowing better, I agreed to get the ball rolling quickly. A bonehead mistake I would never forget. My client and I had our first disagreement after discussing why an employee’s talents were being wasted because of unnecessary activity the employee was required to perform. The client yelled and screamed. Insisting I didn’t know what I was talking about. Not able to convince him otherwise, I avoided the conflict. I then moved on to the next problem, while both the employee and his talents wasted away.

After my second blow up with my client, this time surrounding his production manager’s treatment of subordinates, the client insisted I get to know the manager better.

“Fair enough,” I told him.

After weeks investing offsite personal time getting to know the production manager, I began to understand some of the behaviors he exhibited. He came from a difficult upbringing. His brother died recently. And he didn’t enjoy the way his previous bosses had treated him at work. He also confided in me that his current boss––my client, wasn’t much different. He made it clear my suggestions would not be well received by his boss either.

Months later, during my third and final attempt to improve the production process, I had a team observing a value stream out on the production floor. They were accountable for videotaping and observing how work was done by fellow team members.

When one of the production machines suddenly quit working, I asked the team to observe how their fellow teammates would choose to resolve the problem. “Keep the cameras rolling,” I insisted. “Don’t help unless someone is in danger of getting hurt.”

My client stood by observing too. Arms folded, looking straight down at me, he wasn’t used to seeing employees not producing. At least as he understood what producing something meant. The videotaping process was also something he wasn’t used to. I suspect because it would expose his problems for others to see.

He would soon prove how much he despised exposing his problems. And how much he despised me for encouraging his team to do it.

While the machine was being fixed, the bell rang. Returning the next morning, we picked up the observation process at precisely the same step. Once we completed that step, the team moved to the next machine. Almost immediately, that machine broke down and quit.

This time, the client turned to me, grabbed an eight foot 2 by 4 and hurled it at the machine. He then began screaming that “I was always here when his machines broke down.” Insisting I had special powers to “curse” his system and machines.

But he was just getting started.

Obscenities filled the air. Screaming turned into a lion’s roar. His team stood by videotaping, however, just as I had been training them to do. The client’s hand suddenly came crashing down onto the wooden cart holding my computer. The other hand followed. The cart shattered into pieces. Shocked and dismayed, I walked out.

I resigned midweek––the only occasion in my career when I’ve left a project early. I had been trying to solve the wrong problem, but I finally experienced enough of the real problem to know what that problem was.

If you’ll follow my four recommendations above, you’ll get buy in into change more rapidly. You’ll also find employees embrace change with more gusto and less fear. It won’t be easy, but with practice you’re certain to get better at it.

Read more: Study Says Private Equity Has A People Problem. A Big One.

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Colin D. Baird is an operational turn-around and leadership consultant and the Managing Partner of Five Why Leaders. An organization that provides service to companies in crisis. He is also a consultant to TBM Consulting Group, a global leader in operational excellence with management consultants on four continents. Colin can be reached at colin@5whyleaders.com.