First, understand your landscape of problems. What do you want to pay attention to as potential sources of problems? Consider what you do when you drive your car. You pay attention to the road in front of you as the primary source of potential problems. However, you also pay some attention to your rearview mirror, your instrument panel, and the sides of the road or cross streets. For your work, the landscape could include anything from metrics and standards to meetings and your email inbox. Just as when you are driving, you have to understand the context of how all of these things relate to each other, and how much to pay attention to each potential source. Getting stuck in your inbox when you should be looking at your metrics is just as dangerous as paying attention to the wrong things while driving.
Second, you need to have clear definitions of what is a problem, and what problems matter the most. Without a clear delineation between what is normal and abnormal, you may spend all of your energy arguing about whether something is worth solving. For example, if you think it is problem if I show up for dinner after the food is on the table, and I don’t think I’m late until the food gets cold, then in between those points we will have quite a bit of conflict.
The clarity of problem definition should also include some rules or heuristics about how to determine the relative priority between problems. For example, over 20 years ago when I worked for an electric and gas utility, any outage was a priority for everyone in the company, no matter if your job was in engineering or accounting. The prioritizing rules could be team-specific or organizational-wide, establish a clear ranking of priorities or a means to figure that out on the fly, or be tied to strategy or shift with the times. There is no one right way to do this, but if you ask people how they prioritize what problems to work on and there isn’t a consistent answer to that question, then you lack clarity.
Third, you need a way to prioritize working on solving problems within the broader context of all the other work that has to be done. Too many organizations think of problem solving they do in addition to their “day job”, instead of as a core piece of their work. I was working with a team and on Monday one of the leaders said that solving a particular problem was his top priority of the week. On Wednesday, he then said there as a risk of not getting it done. We asked how long it would take, and he said 4 hours. Surely, if this is your #1 priority, there are 4 hours left in the week. He said he was too busy going to meetings. Clearly, solving this problem was not seen as his number one priority. It was only something to squeeze in if he could. Problem solving has to be its own priority in your overall scheme of work.
These three elements are all contextual. What specifically works for one organization will not necessarily work for another. However, you must ensure that all three are in place. Otherwise, you are just depending on the will of the individual to overcome the organization to drive improvement.
Jamie Flinchbaugh, author of People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem, is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, Consultant, and Board Member with 30 years of learning-oriented experience. As the Founder of JFlinch, he helps teams accelerate their journey by solving their challenging problems and providing the resources, education, and tools needed to make lean leaders successful. He is the co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road.