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The One Right Way

October 1, 1999
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Featured Article
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There's an old saying, "There are many ways to skin a cat." I doubt that anyone ever brought the cat into that discussion. Nevertheless, the theme is that there are many ways to solve a problem. That's flat out wrong, if the operative term is SOLVE.

If the objective is to paper over the problem, delay the consequences of the problem, convince someone that there is no problem, reduce the heat caused by the problem, or shunt the problem aside while attending to other things, then there surely are lots of ways to deal with problems. Every married man knows what I am talking about.

When his beloved points out some deficiency in their abode, his first response is that he will take care of it. A week later when the lack of action compels the spouse to bring it up again, he might suggest that "its not a big deal." In subsequent reincarnations of the request for action he might say he has something more important to deal with, he needs a special tool to fix it, suggest that it looks good just the way it is, etc. Finally, his wife either demands action, or she gives up and hires a handyman. Nonsolving is a fine art among married men.

Rationalization
The reason that people would argue with my premise is that, for their own reasons, they don't want to solve the problem. I've always believed that if you truly want to do something, you can do it. Barring physical or mental incapacity, you can accomplish just about anything you set out to do, if you're willing to pay the price to achieve it. Excuses abound about why we can't do something. They run the gamut from, "my mother didn't breast feed me," to "my boss hates me." The inescapable fact is that Alibi Al & Alice don't want to take responsibility for their lives. It is easier to blame their lack of courage or determination on someone else.

It's the same way in organizations. We ignore what we don't want to deal with, or make a list of excuses, or try some partial solutions. For the truly creative procrastinator, the alternatives are endless. However, if the objective is to actually solve the problem by changing structures, facilities, processes or people so thoroughly that the problem never comes up again, then there is only one right (effective) way to do it.

Problem Solvers and The Others
Over my 40 years in business, I've developed a set of people and organizational categories using a building as a metaphor. In the basement are the real losers. These are the people who can't keep a job and the companies that go bankrupt.

On the ground floor are the walking dead. These zombies lurch along, barely surviving, never putting two periods of successful performance back to back. The next flight up are the steady but unspectacular performers. These folks and companies are the cogs in the great economic machine. In the middle floors we find the treasures, people and organizations for which we can be proud and thankful. They don't lead their profession or industry very often, but they do occasionally have their 15 minutes of fame.

At the top, in the penthouse, are the stars. These are the leaders, the benchmarks, the world class performers. Do you want to know what takes them to the top? They practice the one right way to solve problems.

When I tell you the secret, you're going to be terribly disappointed, if you reside anywhere between the basement and the upper middle floors. The reason is, you don't want to pay the price to solve the problem. You just want to avoid it, cover it up, or make excuses for it. Nevertheless, here is the secret. . . the lesson learned over four decades of watching the leaders outperform all others:

Comprehension
Stars don't act until they understand the problem. Yes, truly, fully comprehend what they are facing. You say it must be more than that? It can't be that simple because you understand your problems, right? Not if you are not among the leaders.

Everyone but the stars see only part of their problem. That is what keeps them from being stars. Most of the time they see only the symptoms. One of the marvelous capabilities of human beings is selective perception. We're able to isolate from the cacophony that deafens us only those things we want to hear or see. Men are especially good at this. When sent to find something by our wives we often come back and say, "It isn't there." At this point the exasperated spouse goes there and points it out. To which we say, "Wow, I didn't even see it." We didn't see it because we weren't focused and committed to finding it. So it is in business. We don't see problems that we aren't motivated to see.

Let me explain what SEEING means. In any situation there are a myriad of factors and forces. In organizations there are people, processes, facilities, structures, and policies all interacting at the visible and invisible level. Unless we are committed to solving the real problem, we sense only the items that are suitable for our purpose. The simple problems are not an issue. I'm talking about the strategic issues that separate the leaders from the pack. At this level there is only one right way, and it has four stages:

  1. Context
    The stars begin by stepping outside the problem and asking themselves, "What are we trying to accomplish in this company, division or department? Are we trying to decrease operating expense so as to reduce our breakeven point? Are we seeking competitive advantage through better quality? Are we trying to retain customers by providing exceptional service?" The reason for starting outside is that if there is no clear goal, how can there be a barrier to reaching it? There must be a context within which action can be taken.

  2. Identification
    After they are absolutely clear on what the ultimate enterprise goal is, then they can begin to identify and dissect the barriers. This is done by viewing them from all angles.

    Nature:

    what is the apparent problem and is this the symptom or the cause?

    Time:

    when does/did it occur?

    Place:

    where does it show up

    People:

    who is touched by it?

    Motivation:

    why is it happening?

    Severity:

    how important is it?

    They catalog the individual and collective actions that seem to underlie the problem. But that is not the end. We're only halfway there.

  3. Patterns
    The third step is to look for relationships among the factors and forces. This takes practice and experience. This is the sixth sense of the "old-timers" who can feel when something is wrong before the gauges show it. So, what are the patterns of causation? Is it a single cause and effect, or is there a chain that starts somewhere out of sight? The stars trace the interactions back as far as they can to find the source. Finally, they arrive at the point where they can try to solve the problem.

  4. The Solution
    With the data they have accumulated and their growing comprehension, they may be able now to solve the problem. Sometimes they find they need outside expertise to help them isolate special types of factors and trace the relationships. Either way they are able to make the problem go away for good. They know it is gone when the expected performance ratios reappear at the unit and corporate level.

A Recent Example
The company is growing along with the booming economy. The problem is that staffing can't find enough people to fill jobs. Is the answer as simple as put on more recruiters or double the advertising budget? At this point, answering yes to either of those questions would most likely deliver a temporary solution at a high cost.

The key question is at the corporate level, not in the staffing department. We went back to Stage 1 and applied those questions to the situation. What is the company trying to achieve? To answer that HR had to talk to senior executives in finance, marketing, production, service and maybe other functions. (Don't be surprised if they can't give you sharp answers. There are zombies, cogs, treasurers and stars in those groups as well. But if you are persistent and insightful you will eventually learn the company's goals.)

After learning where the company was going HR looked not only at staffing, but at employee relations and development to find out if they were part of the solution or part of the problem. They looked outside of HR to see how managers and supervisors are aiding or inhibiting the march to the corporate goal.

Here is where the who, what, where, when, why and how questions came in. After you have the factors then you can look at the pattern of forces among them. What is driving what? At last, if you have persevered, you will know how to solve the problem

You may find as we did in this case that the issue was retention. If they were able to improve retention the staffing problem would all but disappear. They would be saving a lot of money and days of everyone's time. If they had just tried to hire more people all they would have accomplished was a budget overrun and a dissatisfied managerial clientele.

The Choice
I'm not going to tell you what to do, it is your life and your career. But one thing I will tell you with all the strength in my rapidly aging body: If you want to solve the big problems you can, but you have to be willing to commit yourself to the one right way.


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