One of the most common “push backs” I encounter as an Operational Excellence coach is when we first introduce simple, individual, “five why” problem solving. I encourage my teams by telling them not to worry about solving problems; I tell them to just fill out problem solving sheets. Lots of them.
Shortly, a top leader will take me aside and tell me that I really didn’t mean that…did I?
Of course I did! Why would I want them to solve problems when the organization doesn’t have a simple, standard problem solving tool? How will we ever make quantum leap improvements if we don’t have gobs of skilled problem solvers, everyone, everywhere? Why would I shunt the learning process by demanding solved problems from neophyte problem solvers???
This can present a real conundrum for leadership. Of course I want them to solve problems…eventually. But first, I need to help them develop problem solvers. This is the kind of thing that makes even the most pliable, willing and passionate CEO stop short and emit the universal, “Huh?” (Which, by the way, carries with it: what the heck am I paying you the big bucks for??)
So, let’s take this twisted contradiction outside of the situation. Let’s look to a sporting illustration for some guidance. Hey, golf is something that most of you top level leaders can get your heads around. Let’s think about golf for a minute. In fact, let’s tell a real story here…
Suppose you’ve been challenged by the local smart-alec competitor down the street to a dual to the death: your foursome against his at the local country club. The stakes aren’t incredibly high, but they are worthy of pursuing: bragging rights for the year and a round of drinks for four at the club, later.
You realize your foursome is lacking. Two of the four play golf on the local fund-raising tour. One confesses that rather than count strokes, he counts the number of balls he loses. Knowing you need them to improve, you hire the local golf pro to whip them into shape. You’ve got three months until the big match up.
Your golf pro is a slight man with an aura of wisdom surrounding him like the glow around the harvest moon. He oozes prophetic wisdom. Once, someone at the beer stop told you, that he was overheard chiding a young golfer with, “Wax on. Wax off.” You get the picture. The pro’s results speak for themselves. He has a regular gaggle of people eschewing his virtues.
You and your bad-news-bear foursome saunter up to the first tee for your legendary first lesson. The pro shuffles to the group and instructs them to swing. After the tenth swing, you wonder out loud when you’ll get to hit a ball. The pro says simply, “When you are ready.”
You want him to teach your foursome to put the ball on the par-stinking-four green, but all this guy wants to do is watch you swing. Sicko.
He stops you and asks you to show him your grip. You oblige with a furrowed brow. He moves two fingers and tells you to swing some more.
The drill goes on for an hour. When he finally tells your team to stop, he points to one of the new guys and says, “Next week, you get to hit the ball. Everyone else, come prepared to swing.”
Furious, you stomp after the pro and demand an answer: why aren’t you teaching these guys to golf?
“I am,” he replies, head bowed.
“OK, so why does that guy get to hit the ball next week and I don’t? I’ve been doing this for 20 years!”
“Ah. I can see that you’ve been swinging the club wrongly for a long time. I have to teach you how to hold the club again – like a new golfer – so I can teach you how to swing. Then, I can teach you to hit the ball. When you can get your club face squarely on the ball, then I will teach you to hit it straight. Then I will teach you to hit it far. Then I will teach you to get to the green in par or less. But, first, I have to teach you to hold the club.”
You expected him to teach your foursome to get the ball up on the green. He is, in fact, doing just that.
Imagine how ridiculous it would be to expect a new golfer to eagle. No: imagine how ridiculous it would be to DEMAND that a new golfer get an eagle.
Yet, you may be expecting your team to solve problems right now. You may be demanding that they solve problems.
Ah, I see, you’ve been solving problems for 2o years…
POST-SCRIPT: OK, so I baited you and you took the bait. The truth is that you will need to keep fighting fires while the team learns how to solve problems. Shortly, someone will find a root cause, remove it and the problem will stop. Celebrate. Jump up and down just like when you nailed your first long, straight ball on the golf course. Do a little dance if you have to. Just celebrate the solved problems. Don’t demand them. And, keep fighting the fires.