Corporate meetings often resemble mini war rooms. Something that didn’t go as planned demands an urgent huddle. What went wrong? Who is to be blamed? How can the damage be minimized? Can we keep it a secret? These and many more. Problem solving seems more like firefighting. You douse one fire, another breaks out.
Take a pause and rewind. Think about what went wrong in your business in the last year or two.
- Frequent machine breakdowns? Did the same machine break down more than once?
- Were there instances of late deliveries by suppliers? Is this a recurring pattern for one or more suppliers?
- Did you receive complaints from customers? Defective piece or incomplete paperwork?
- Reports not ready for team meetings? Does this happen frequently?
There are so many things that go wrong. The key here is to look at recurring failures and patterns. Why do problems reoccur?
Problems reoccur when we fail to identify and fix the root cause. That is what is different in problem solving and firefighting.
Problem Solving vs Firefighting
What is a “problem” and what is a “fire”?
Michael Balle, author of The Lean Manager, writes “a problem is one where although you might not have an immediate solution, but you understand the problem space”.
What is fire? Michael writes “a fire is a situation where you’re caught with your pants down because you simply didn’t see it coming, don’t know what to do and have to act quickly because if not consequences can be dire”.
A sudden machine break down is a problem. Flights cancelled due to a pandemic or bi-lateral disputes between two countries is a fire.
A supplier requesting a 10% price increase is a problem. A supplier going bankrupt without prior warning is a fire.
Let us revisit the “problem” and “fire” definition
A problem is a deviation from a standard or expected outcome. Like the machine breakdown. You know the standard performance as well as the process to achieve the expected outcome. Problem is when the standard performance is not met.
In such an event, we have the opportunity to compare standard to actual process and find the gap or the root cause.
What went wrong and why? You first repair the damage. Then, you use the insights to improve both detection and prevention of the same problem again.
A fire is a problem where we do not have a defined standard process and outcome. Like flight cancellations due to the pandemic.
There are two problem solving lessons to be learned
- First, check if we are treating a “problem” as a “fire”
- Second, we need to learn how to turn “fires” into “problems”
Don’t treat a “problem” as a “fire”
As you scramble all resources to undo the damage of an unfavorable incident, check if it is a “problem” or a “fire”. How?
The easiest check is to ask:
- Was it within our control to avert this incident?
- What caused the unfavorable incident? Internal or External causes
- Do we have a standard in place? Can we put a standard in place?
If you could have averted the incident or if it was triggered by internal factors, then it is a problem. If you have defined standards in place, then too it is a “problem” and not a “fire”.
For example, machine breakdown is a problem. You will find teams treating it like a fire as the production stops and delivery deadlines are missed.
Planned and autonomous maintenance guidelines are present in every factory. There are advanced processes and systems to predict machine downtime and reduce unplanned downtime. Hence, while you undo the damage, ensure that problems are not disguised as a fire.
Revisit the standard processes. Use the recent incident as another learning and improve the detection and prevention methods.
5 Why Analysis is a simple process to deep dive into the root cause and solve a problem. Here is the link to my article on “How to use 5 Why Analysis for Problem Solving”.
How to turn fires into problems?
Do you think the fire is repeatable? Have you encountered the fire more than once? Or do you foresee increase in frequency?
If the answer to any of the above is a “Yes”, it is better we find ways to turn the “fire” into a “problem”.
Let us do less fire-fighting and more problem solving.
To turn a fire into a problem, we need to analyze patterns. Patterns help us develop a prediction model. The prediction model works as a forecast to give us warning before the fire breaks out.
Consider the example where a supplier suddenly declared bankruptcy. If this has happened more than once, how could you avert the fire?
I say you need to have a better due-diligence checklist for onboarding new suppliers. Develop a scoring guideline for supplier financial stability. Use the scorecard for new supplier due-diligence. Also, use it periodically for assessing financial stability of your existing suppliers.
Any signs of financial distress will be a warning.
When you encounter a “fire”, check for patterns and then set a standard in place – process, outcome, detection and prevention.
Problem solving is the key to business sustainability
You can’t fight all fires. How many businesses have succumbed to the pandemic? Many. Across geographies and industries.
Some may argue that the pandemic was once in a lifetime event. But can you be sure?
There are several experts predicting frequent and longer pandemics. If not prepared for the next fire, your business may be the next casualty.
Hence, problem solving becomes the key to business sustainability. How well can we distinguish problems from fires? And how can we turn fires into problems?
Standards and autonomous processes reduce the impact and occurrence of problems. Customers and employees do not like bumpy experiences. Frequent bumps on the road dent their trust and confidence. Focus on problem solving for smooth sailing.