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December 2015
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Playing by whose rules?

When things go wrong at work, as they occasionally do, a common first reaction is to look for the culprit (s). This can lead to punishment which may result in the "evildoer (s)" being severely reprimanded, or even terminated. Unfortunately, not only does the problem often remain unsolved, the organization is left with another problem of replacing a person or two. There may be a better way that doesn't result in a lose-lose situation.

Dr. Joseph Juran, one of the early champions of what is now known as Total Quality Management, observed that many managers operated under the philosophy that most problems could be eliminated if people would just learn how to do their jobs better. He disagreed with this premise, and began to vocalize the opposite viewpoint that systems, not people, were to blame for most mistakes and errors. The rule of thumb is that 85% of the work place problems can be corrected by changing systems. By the same token, workers control 15% or less of what can be changed. Dr. Juran's wisdom has helped many organizations stop pointing fingers and instead begin to search for the actual source of problems.

To look at work systems, we need to do three things. First, to be successful, the whole team needs to be involved in problem solving. Second, to be effective at identifying and solving the problems, someone (hopefully a neutral party with no vested interest in the outcome) has to serve as a facilitator. Third, in order to understand the problem and identify the best solution, a scientific approach using deductive reasoning is essential.

By involving the entire team in the problem solving process, we can realize several beneficial effects. First, a larger group often generates more and better ideas than a smaller one. This is especially true when the expanded group includes individuals who are directly affected by the problem itself or affected by the solution to the problem. Second, problem solving enhances teamwork by making everyone feel valued through the participative process. This can result in higher quality solutions which benefit the organization and its stakeholders.  Third, group problem solving becomes a learning experience, training individuals for future challenges. Finally, by being involved in the entire process, broad acceptance of the final solution is enhanced because people were in at the start of the process.

A problem solving group needs a leader who can help them by serving in a neutral capacity. This requires the leader to assist the group with the various processes without hindering the task at hand. As a facilitator, the leader needs skills to encourage participation, suggest methods and processes to identify problems and generate ideas. By getting the group focused on the common problem, he/she will aid in selecting the best solutions.

The role of facilitator is difficult, if not impossible for the manager of a group. In the facilitator role, the person should neither evaluate nor contribute ideas. Since managers are charged with the task of evaluating employees and responsible for oversight of work processes, most managers find it very uncomfortable if not impossible to move into a facilitating style within their own departments. The solution is to make the manager part of the problem solving team and bring in an outside facilitator-someone who has no direct stake in the outcome of the problem.

In our company, managers are shown how to use a scientific approach to problem solving using a nine-step, deductive method. Based on scientific methodology used by physical scientists, this process can help a group by giving it an organized approach. After discussion of the problem situation, the problem (s) is (are) identified and a formal problem statement is developed.  This statement may be modified later after additional data are collected. The group goes through a process to separate causes from effects in order to concentrate efforts on the causal factors.

Once the group is satisfied that it understands the problem (s) and has adequate background information, alternatives are generated using various techniques. Once alternatives generated, criteria that need to be satisfied are listed and discussed. Finally, the best solution (s) is (are) identified by using the criteria to aid the decision-making process. Once the optimum solution is identified, planning for implementation takes place. While this process can be longer than a less scientific approach, the resulting solutions are invariably better. And, a good facilitator can vary techniques to make the process both productive and enjoyable. By slowing down the tendency of a group to jump quickly from problem identification to brainstorming to implementation, the quality of work is greatly enhanced.

The renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow once remarked, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, it's not long before every problem begins to look like a nail."  Hammering fellow workers usually makes things worse and often does nothing to help improve things. By giving everyone a flexible, adaptable problem solving "hammer", we're certain to nail the best solution!