The problem with problems.


“The problem is I’m understaffed”.

“Our system is incredibly slow. Nothing can improve until we get a new one”.

“The issue is the customers just don’t know how long it takes to process this work”.

As humans, we’re fundamentally designed and incredibly good at spotting patterns. Work isn’t getting done? We probably need more staff. Widgets moving through our systems slowly? We probably need a new system. Customers filling out forms wrong? We probably need some intensive customer education.

And here we find the inherent problem with problems; we’re fighting against our basal instinct to spot patterns and draw an immediate conclusions. But what if re-framing this thinking we find an easier, quicker, cheaper and more effective way of solving the underlying issue? What if by simply considering the impact of the problem we can find better solutions than we initially thought we could get?

I had this discussion with one of my change agents last week. “The problem is”, she mused “we’re just horribly understaffed. We have so much going on, so many ad hoc tasks… I just don’t have the people to do the work.”

“What impact does this under-staffing have?” I asked.

“Well, obviously it means we don’t get our work done. We miss things. People stay late and feel pressured.” She replied.

Aha! The problem wasn’t inherently the number of staff she had on payroll, but that the amount of work she needed to get done, couldn’t get done. Finally! A problem statement we can work with.

The change is subtle but poignant. Just conceptually changing the language used around the problem opens us up to a wider variety of potential solutions. By ‘blocking’ ourselves into a corner and stating a solution as a problem, we’re resigning ourselves to only one of potentially a myriad of other potential solutions.

We talked a little more about her mounting workload and backlog. The simple change in language opened us up to so many new solutions – making the internet and self-service portals more user friendly to reduce the incoming work volumes, visual management around ad hoc tasks, streamlining the process to reduce waste and speed up the value, and error-proofing the process to cut down our rework cycles to name but a few.

We solved her under-staffing problem by not once changing the levels of staff she had.

This takes time and practice; you’re literally battling every human instinct not to jump to the first solution. But it’s so incredibly worth while.

What’s your favorite way to open people up to alternative solutions? How else do you move people out of the dreaded ‘solution mode’? I’d love to know in the comments below!

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