Why won’t they tell me there is a problem?
Leaders ask people to tell them what problems they have. This isn’t a practice exclusive to lean. MBWA, or Management By Walking Around, even incorporated this concept. In some organizations, there are systems in place (whether digital or on a board) for individuals to capture and surface problems. We ask as part of one-on-ones. But we seem to hear about far fewer problems than really exist. We know there are more problems out there, we just don’t know what they are.
To overcome this, we need to understand the specific reasons people struggle with surfacing problems. There is no one generic answer. For many people, or companies, there are specific reasons. Here are the most common three reasons that I’ve found:
1. It won’t make a difference
Although some of you will likely say it is item #2, when you dig deep enough, this is the most common reason (by far) that I find. People have no faith in their management and supervision. Or perhaps no faith in the system. But either way, they’ve had experience over experience where they raise an issue, and nothing happens. They could probably tell you about an issue that they’ve raised 10 times with 5 different people and nothing ever happen. So why bother? And so they save their breath, and their frustration, but not even sharing.
2. I’ll get the blame
While not as common as #1, this is another common reason. While surfacing a problem won’t usually lead to getting fired, get blamed isn’t fun regardless of the real consequences. You all remember the old joke:
Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this?” Doctor: “Well, don’t do that.”
If that is the response I get from my supervision, “don’t do that again”, when I surface a problem, then I’ll quickly learn not to surface a problem. If the consequences are worse, having to fill out a report, or being suspended from my role, I’ll rarely surface real problems. Although it is better than it used to be, aviation suffers from this, as does medicine. Reporting a problem could lead to loads of paperwork and interviews, and so I’ll try to work through the problem before having to surface it.
3. “Shame will be brought upon my family”
These were actual words used when asking questions of a worker at a client. While these aren’t the words most will use, there is a bit of feeling shame when we were part of a problem. It might not have been our fault. But we were are part of it. And admitting to a problem is admitting that we failed, which is one of the most difficult things for us to admit.
What overcomes these? On #1 and #2, it is people being “forced” to surface problems which set up the opportunity to experience something that is the opposite of our belief. Namely, they need to experience that it WILL make a difference and they WON’T get blamed. This will take far more than 1 of those experiences to stick.
On #3, leaders need to role model the behavior that surfacing problems is not shameful, hiding them is shameful. Surfacing them is courageous. And they can’t convince people to do this, they must role model it actively and continuously.
Question: What other reasons might you struggle to get problems surfaced? And what strategies have you attempted to overcome it?