Creating a Company Problem-solving Culture

Guest post by Richard H. Tyson, President, CEObuilder

One of the most predictable expectations that CEOs and other executives have for their employees is to be “problem solvers.” That said, we have found that the typical company culture often falls victim to one or more roadblocks to effective problem solving.

Effective problem solving seeks out the root causes of “the problem,” does not tolerate excuses, focuses primarily on processes rather than people, and is mistake tolerant. While each of these essential components of problem solving is easy to understand, they are often difficult to establish holistically in a corporate culture.

Why? Because the tendency of organizations is to succumb to the inevitable roadblocks that derail problem solving. Let’s look at each:

1. Effective problem solving seeks root causes. When this is established as “how things are done at Company XYZ,” the discovery of a root cause leads to real, impactful solutions. However, the natural tendency is to opt for workarounds that allow us to maintain our normal work habits, while failing to unearth root causes. When this happens, problems are perpetuated—often with dire consequences.

Consider the manufacturer who is experiencing malfunctions on a machine that is essential in his production flow. In order to keep disruption to a minimum, the machine operator discovers that he can keep the machine working through a series of quick fixes including the use of bailing wire and duct tape. In the short run, this allows the operation to continue with minimal disruption, but before long the machine grinds to a halt, resulting in not only the termination of the production process, but also a series of extremely costly repairs. Workarounds are evidence of a culture that rewards quick fixes rather than real solutions.

2. Effective problem solving does not tolerate excuses. Too often we hear all the reasons why a problem can’t be solved, rather than an open discussion of possible solutions. It is certainly reasonable to discuss what hasn’t worked to date, but the intent should be learning, not stonewalling the problem-solving process. Thomas Edison failed over 13,000 times in his path to inventing the incandescent light bulb. He said, “I never quit until I get what I’m after. Negative results are just what I’m after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results.” No excuses were tolerated; he simply tried, failed, learned—and repeated the process until the solution became apparent.

3. Effective problem solving focuses on processes rather than people. When a problem is brought to the table, too often the first step is defining who is to blame. Perhaps we think that by defining the culprit, the problem is half solved. However, unless the problem is a function of gross negligence, this is rarely accurate. The fact is, most employees want to do a good job—and they work hard to that end. The likelihood is that the problem lies within the process that the employee is using, rather than a lack of competence or effort. By analyzing the process wherein the problem has emerged, root causes are much more likely to be identified. Even more importantly, employees will not be motivated to hide problems (or create workarounds) to avoid censure.

4. Effective problem solving is mistake tolerant. This leadership attitude eliminates defensiveness on the part of the employees involved. It encourages open-mindedness and a willingness to allow scrutiny of all aspects of a problem. Ownership of those aspects is more readily embraced by employees, while defending one’s turf is eschewed. Contrast that to the tendency to go into self-protection mode. This is a normal reaction by one who feels threatened, but it inevitably shuts down productive problem solving. Management needs to create an environment that sees problems as opportunities to learn and improve. When that is clearly part of a company’s culture, employees will readily bring important issues to the table, providing personal insights on how improvements can be made.

When business problems are discussed, executives should insist on asking the hard questions that will uncover root causes while tolerating neither excuses nor finger pointing. They should be alert to signs of defensiveness, reassuring employees that the company is mistake tolerant—and that the emphasis is on solutions, not blaming. Further, they should stress that defining and solving problems is essential to the company; that through these efforts the company will succeed as everyone participates in learning how to continually improve how business is done. This insistence, over time, will create a corporate culture that truly fosters effective problem solving.

Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner, and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses. For 21 years, CEObuilder has successfully brought about an outstanding financial return for CEO and executive clients through providing leading-edge content in the areas of strategizing, team-building, problem-solving and managing for results, as well as the use of proprietary learning and coaching processes.

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