Are you working on the right problems?
Lean is not all about waste, despite what we see in most definitions and applications. If it were about one thing (which oversimplifies things) it would be about problem solving, at all levels of the organization.
We take problem solving for granted. Why? Because we’ve been doing it since we were very young. We learned it in school. And because when we teach lean we mostly focus on the technique of solving problems, it sounds pretty simple and so we dismiss that we have much to learn.
One of the most frustrating problems I hear managers at all levels of organizations talk about is not having enough time. It is one of the reasons I spend so much coaching time on prioritization and personal productivity. But we always have time for problem solving. I haven’t met a manager yet who somehow skips problem solving because they are too busy with other things. We might skip doing it well, or doing it differently, or doing it collaboratively, but one way or another, problem solving always makes the cut.
Therefore, I would contend that it is one of the best levers for change that we have, because we are doing it anyway. Just think, with all the problems we’re already trying to solve, if we became 5% more effective at solving the problems we are already working on…or 50%, or 200%…just how powerful that would be!
Here is the first level that we make the mistake. Imagine you have 5 direct reports, and each one of those directs has 5 problems. We think we have 25 problems. If our directs have 25 pieces of equipment down, we think our problem is that we have 25 piece of equipment down. If our directs have 25 unhappy customers, we think we have 25 unhappy customers. If our directs have 25 projects behind schedule, we think we have 25 projects behind schedule.
This is a fallacy. Our directs’ problems are not our problems. Our problems are different.
The manager’s problems are why those problems exist. The manager’s problems are why we can’t solve those problems faster.
I’ve met too many executives who think their job is to go and meet with the largest client who is unhappy, or to ask about the why the largest piece of equipment is down, or why a particular department exceeded their budget. There is nothing inherently wrong with these questions, depending on why you are engaging them. Of course sometimes those are the right problems for you to work on as well, but often they are not. You have different problems.
Your problem is why is the preventive maintenance program not working that allowed all those pieces of equipment to go down in the first place. Or why are your customers not seeing the value proposition. Or do we have a planning problem or an execution problem that allows so many projects to get behind schedule.
You have unique problems, and until you understand that fact, and work on the appropriate problems for your role, little progress can be made.
But this is not our comfort zone. Our comfort zone is our past experience, not the problems that lay before us. We take a super-worker and turn them into a supervisor, but their skills were already most effective in their last role.
The role of a manager is more than problem solver…it is problem solving architect. You must put into place and into practice all that is required to make those around you effective at solving problems; and not just solving problems, but solving the right problems. This isn’t a company issue or a CEO issue or a “lean guy” issue but is an issue anyone leading a group of people must face and tackle.
There are 3 components of doing this work. The reason that these 3 components are so important is that too often we try to improve problem solving one-dimensionally. We roll out new problem solving training, and find nothing changes. Those 3 components are:
- the problem solving culture and behaviors: how do we think about and treat the problems we have
- the problem solving methods and skills: yes, the technique still matters, but not as much as the skills in which we deploy those techniques
- the systems to manage problems: how do we manage problems, surface them, track them, prioritize them
Are you a problem solver? Or a problem solving architect?
Reflection question: what components are holding you and your team back from more effectively solving the problems you are already dealing with?