Aug 19 2014

I was recently in a conversation where a certain metric had begun going in the wrong direction. The upper management had noticed & wanted the direct manager to do some problem solving to figure out why. While this may be perfectly sound, assuming the direct manager was not aware or in any way dealing with the problem, but he was.

He had actually seen the problem in advance, understood (or at least thought he had) the impact of the issue & put in place what he thought was an appropriate countermeasure. It turns out his assumptions of the extent of the problem were not correct. The data he had to determine the expected effect (in this case a shortage of manpower due to holidays) was based on inaccurate workload & manpower expectations.

There were several mistakes made in this incident. First and foremost the inputs to the original problem solving were wrong. Easily resolved when we get our results, look back through our analysis & see where & why we got it wrong. By doing this we can ensure we adjust the necessary inputs & identify the appropriate actions for the next time.

The second issue, and in terms of process probably more important, is that he didn’t actually document the problem solving in the first place. As many traditional managers would do, he had looked at a few spreadsheets, made a few decisions & moved on. There was no transparency, no record of the thought process & thus the ability to look back, reflect on the problem solving process did not exist. While documenting our problem solving analysis may seem unnecessary, the ability to learn from our mistakes is greatly increased when we can actually look at the inputs to our decisions.

Finally, he had not escalated the problem up the chain. Sure, he had put in place actions to deal with the issue, but when the actions were insufficient, the problem still existed. When the senior management saw the results, they were unaware that the issue had been identified & at least an attempt had been made to deal with it. When this happens it is usually the case that the reputation of the direct manager is diminished. Had he escalated the issue prior to the result, even though he had taken action, the senior management would have known he had at least attempted to resolve it, and in many cases they can assist (and should) with, at a minimum a review of the analysis & potential action to further ensure the issue doesn’t actually arise.

Solving problems is not just about removing them, limiting their effect or protecting yourself from their impact. Sure that may be our main purpose, but we should also focus on the process of solving problems. The more we do it, the better we get. By documenting our problem solving process we enable reflection afterwards based on facts, not our inaccurate memories. If we get it right, great, if we do not, we can always go back & see why.

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