Change hits hard, fast, and often. It shifts our focus, changes our direction, and alters our plans. Change leaves us stumped by questions we are not prepared to answer and searching for questions that we never thought to ask. Left on the road, between what we were once sure of and the indecision of which way to go; a problem waits to be solved.
Introduction: Change hits hard, fast, and often. It shifts our focus, changes our direction and alters our plans. Change leaves us stumped by questions we’re not prepared to answer and searching for questions that we never thought to ask. Left on the road, between what we were once sure of and the indecision of which way to go; a problem waits to be solved.
Problems begin with one Unanswered Question
Hearing the word problem, we automatically think of some catastrophic event requiring kick-off meetings, project teams, and an all-out hunt for the illustrious root cause. Usually, however, problems are much more subtle than that. They move in quietly, riding the coat-tails of change or they drag change along, bringing it to our doorsteps. Problems both follow and precede change. Most problems don’t need a grand introduction. All we need to do is to look for them, wait for them, and prepare for them. They are always there, just beneath the surface. And before they ever took a life of their own, even those problems with the deepest roots started simply enough as an unanswered question. What issues currently have your organization tied up in knots? What was the last problem that you attempted to solve? What was the last problem that you ignored? This manifesto is intended to dispel the myth that problems need official-sounding names and formally outfitted team leaders wearing colored belts. Problems are not only exposed through formal processes but are revealed in a moment of curiosity. Just around the corner of expectation and at the intersection of “why; why not; and if not me, who?” is a chance for every employee to positively influence the course of events.
The following is a Problem in the Making:
Friday morning a shipment of boxes was delivered to a distribution warehouse in a small North Carolina town. As had happened on many Friday mornings before, Jason Checkins received the shipment and pointed to the area where the pallets should be placed. As the boxes were stacked, Jason noticed that the boxes all had yellow stick-ers. He thought that it was odd and wondered to himself, “Why don’t these boxes have the blue labels that they normally do?” He thought about it for a moment and moved on. He never mentioned the yellow labels to anyone in the facility until the following Friday, a week later.
Part 1: What Happens to a Problem Deferred?
Problems often come first in unseen whispers. They are more than headaches to avoid; they are signals of things to come - flashes of lights drawing us to attention and calling us to action. Before we can resolve them, we have to increase our ability to predict them, sense them, see them, and examine them. When I think of organizational problem solving, it brings to mind a poem written by Langston Hughes, “We sense that something may be wrong, but we stand back. We watch, and we wait to see what is going to happen. We watch the market; we see the effects on our competitors and our suppliers. We watch what’s happening around us, to our employees, and to our co-workers. We read the headlines and hear the news of industry fallout and thousands of jobs being lost. Still we fail to consider what those signs might mean for us. Only rarely do we look for opportunities to make a difference. Pointing his pen at the corporation, today Mr. Hughes might ask:
What happens to a problem deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore -
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over -
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Problems don’t Just go away. You don’t have six months to form an assessment committee or three months to train all your people. You can’t afford to lose time pretending that the problem does not exist, or even one day wondering why someone else has not taken action. It is the job of every person in the company to do what he can, when he can - and hopefully before it is too late....
The problem unfolds:
Tuesday at about 4:35 p.m., Trisha Calbak received ten calls in a row from customers. They complained that the gumball machines that they ordered had arrived but that the machines were empty. Trisha explained that she would check in with the shipping department to see if she could find out what happened. She thought to herself, “I’ve never had this many of the same complaints. What’s going on?” But, it was five o’clock. The matter would have to wait until tomorrow.
Problems Can Create a Stink. Problems that get pushed aside have a devilish streak. They are demanding and determined - they want to be noticed. Those simple problems that are pushed aside join forces and take root wherever they can. Deferred, they suck the life out of people, drain resources, anger customers, and delight competitors. Here’s what can happen:
Wednesday morning, five of Trisha’s co-workers received a similar succession of complaints. They each informed the customers to simply return the items and that they would have a new product shipped out immediately. By Wednesday afternoon, the customer service switchboard lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The overflow of calls and the long hold times angered so many customers that they began to call the front office. Gayle Planfore, the customer service manager, thought to herself, “Why have the hold times spiked so high?” Tomorrow, she thought, “I’ll have to get a team together to find out what’s going on.”
Problems don’t Just dry Up. Minor annoyances may not be causing great pain today. But, they will not shrivel up while you move on to work on things that are more comfortable or more familiar. As the days go by, a situation that may have offered many workable solutions may harden considerably. Note the result of not addressing the problem
Late on Wednesday, the television network department began receiving customer complaints. Their shipping department was overwhelmed by the number of returned packages. Packages were coming in faster than they new packages could be sent out. Lyndie Uttohh, president of national sales department, was pulled right out of the sales team’s celebration. It was an urgent call from the network; they were advised that they were now in gross breach of their contract to fulfill customer orders.
Problems Fester and Then They run. Jumping to solutions and symptom-chasing creates a lot of busy work, and usually delivers little in return. Ever-changing conditions and poor response time create more deviation; create more questions that people have no answer for and no means for finding. Everyone’s running, but they are all headed in different directions. Look at what happened next:
By early Thursday morning, the company was all a buzz. The number of customer complaints had reached 5,000. So, the customer service manager set up a special project team to identify a more efficient way to handle the calls. The shipping department called in more employees to work the receiving side of the house. The accounts payable department received an unexpected invoice from the network shopping channel that they promptly escalated to the CFO for review.
Problems don’t get lighter the more You Pass Them around. Problems gather a following. They keep growing in size, intensity, and complexity until everyone is stretched to his limits, chaos ensues, customers leave, employees quit, or the system breaks down. This is the result:
By the end of the day, phones were ringing off the hook. Shipping, distribution, customer service, operations, sales, and the shopping network were all pointing fingers at each other. Someone had to be at fault and everyone was looking for someone to blame. The customers were waiting to be served.
Problems don’t go down easier with a Sugar Coating. Hurrying through a problem by coming up with clever, convenient answers can be more dangerous than deferring it. Finding creative ways to craft a story about the situation rather than spending the energy to develop straightforward ways to deal with the truth cheats you of the benefits that can be gained by learning your way through the process. Some problems just cannot be sugar-coated: Late Thursday morning, John Fixits, national director of sales and promotions, was called in to an emergency meeting. He was told that the company needed to prepare an immediate response concerning more than $225,000 in chargebacks from the shopping channel.
Problems don’t Just explode! Companies don’t just suddenly go out of business. And employees don’t lose their jobs because something just popped up overnight. When you defer a problem, you are simply postponing the inevitable and at the same time relinquishing the very control that you will need to stop it.
The best way to escape from a problem is to solve it — Brendan Francis
Every day, every person in an organization has at least one problem that he cannot solve- a problem that he sets aside, a problem that he ignores, a problem that he watches unfold. Imagine that every problem left unchecked costs your company only $1.00. What’s the cost of one unresolved problem in an organization? In a 5,000-person organization ($1 x 5,000/day = $5,000), in one year, those unresolved problems result in a $1.3 million dollar loss for the company. I just can’t seem to think of any problem that cost only $1.00?
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