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What Does a Good Problem-Solving Culture Look Like?

June 14, 2021
Too many organizations lack structure around finding root causes and fixing them, and instead just go looking for someone to blame.

How would you describe your company’s problem-solving culture?  I have asked any number of managers that question; as often as not, it’s received with a blank stare.  Most managers haven’t thought about just how problem-solving in their organization happens. Those who have thought about it are reluctant to say something like: “When a big problem arises, we ignore it as long as we can so that no one has to take responsibility for fixing it. When it gets so bad that it’s biting our rear ends, we go on a wild hunt for a scapegoat, heap blame on them, engage in a round of hysterical firefighting, then return to our business.” Asked his approach to hitting, baseball legend Ted Williams replied, “See the ball, hit the ball.”  That intuitive tactic worked for Mr. Williams but, too often, “seat of the pants” problem-solving leads to a “See the problem, fix the blame” culture.  A leader’s job is to create a “See the problem, study the problem, fix the problem” culture. 

What, then, does such a culture look like?  What consistent behaviors would we see organization members engaged in? 

Blame-Free Discussion of Problems

I once heard a story about a manager who attended a seminar on continuous improvement strategies. During a break, she got a phone call about a problem back at the worksite.  Forgetting everything she had heard at the workshop, she shouted into the phone, “Who’s responsible for this?  Just wait until I get hold of them!” It might be that the manager spoke in a moment of frustration, but it’s likely that she and her management colleagues often evinced that very behavior.  It’s consistent with a “fix the blame” culture. 

In the “fix the problem” culture, one hears lots of discussions of problems because they are identified quickly, and the culture reinforces deliberation of problems and their causes.  Questions like, “How long has this been going on?”; “How often does this happen?”; “What were the circumstances around the problem?” are asked.  Those questions seek data and information. They come from a stance of “We’re all in this together and it’s in all our interests to get to a solution that’s effective and that everyone buys into.”  Questions like, “How could this have happened?”;  “Why hasn’t anyone done anything about this problem?”; “Why didn’t you take steps to prevent this problem?” are avoided.  Those inquiries come from a position of understandable frustration, but they seek to blame and punish rather than to develop solutions. 

Uncovering Problems Is Reinforced

I once was engaged to assess the effectiveness of a client’s leadership team. My assessment report pointed to several strengths of the leadership team. It also described a few important deficiencies. Within a week, I received a letter from the CEO admonishing me for highlighting those deficiencies. 

We’re all familiar with the term “shoot the messenger.” We’re also familiar with the impact this behavior has on everyone’s willingness to bring problems to light. Problems that are hidden can’t be addressed.

Another dynamic that keeps problems hidden is the “we’ve always done it this way” or the “that’s how things are here” mindset.  A few decades ago, I worked for a lodging company.  I tried to get the management team to understand the concept of cost of quality. There was clear resistance to the idea among the managers.  I asked about the value of “comped meals”; i.e., restaurant meals for which the customer wasn’t charged due to a complaint.  I was certain that managers would be interested in analyzing this source of waste.  Instead, they referred to it simply as “a cost of doing business” that was mostly out of their control. 

Several years later, I was working with a client’s accounting team to map the accounts payable process. The team was launched because bills weren’t being paid in a timely way, and some bills weren’t being paid at all. During our meetings, team members related stories of the many intra-company barriers they ran into as they tried to get their work done. When I asked if they had ever taken these issues to their managers, the team members replied, “It wouldn’t do any good.  That’s just how everyone operates around here.”

The “fix the problem” culture includes specific behaviors designed to uncover problems while they are still small and inexpensive. Supervisors and managers regularly visit and talk with their team just to ask how things are going and what barriers they are experiencing. When team members bring up issues, they are taken seriously rather than brushed off. They understand that their jobs aren’t so much “command and direct” as they are “listen, learn, and coach.”  Clear channels like Idea Systems that provide a means to bring up solutions to problems are implemented and sustained. Team members who bring problems to the forefront are recognized and, when appropriate, rewarded. 

A Structured Approach to Problem Solving

Differences in problem-solving approaches can cause conflict among managers and their associates. Your boss just wants you to “find the answer.” You want to gather some data about possible causes. Neither position is wrong, but you and your boss are likely to be butting heads as he sees you employing tactics that he sees as a waste of time.

The organization benefits when everyone uses a common approach to problem-solving. There are several of them and one of them might already be in use somewhere in your organization.

 A past client asked me to teach its managers a structured approach to problem-solving. After a bit of digging, I found that several of its automotive customers required the quality department to respond to quality problems by filling out what they referred to as a “5P Form.” It turned out that the form was based on a structured approach to problem-solving. We taught “5P Problem Solving” to supervisors and employee problem-solving teams. The 5P approach didn’t magically solve all the company’s problems, but it did make communications about how problems were being tackled much easier. Further, teams and individuals grew to be more confident that managers would listen to problems they raised because the company was committed to the use of 5P. 

The behaviors that underlie a positive problem-solving culture, then, are visible. Those behaviors are practiced daily by everyone in the company, almost without thinking about them. 

Creating such a culture requires an investment in training and ongoing communications. The benefits, though, are substantial and real. Organizations that successfully create and sustain a visibly strong problem-solving culture—one in which problems are identified, tackled, and solved more quickly and effectively than they are by competitors—have a clear and sustained competitive advantage that translates into better market share and better employee engagement.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference: Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.  

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