Becoming an Effective Problem-Finder
In the remainder of this book, we will lay out the key skills and capabilities required to ensure that problems do not remain hidden in your organization. Keep in mind that problem-finding does not precede processes of continuous improvement. Learning does not follow a linear path. Take the athlete who practices her sport on a regular basis. She does not always discover a problem first and then practice a new technique for overcoming that flaw. Sometimes, an athlete sets out on a normal practice routine, and through that process, she discovers problems that diminish her effectiveness. In sum, the processes of problem-finding and continuous improvement are inextricably linked. A person should not focus on one at the expense of the other, nor should he expect to proceed in a linear fashion from problem discovery to performance improvement. We often will discover new problems while working to solve old ones.
The following chapters explain the seven vital behaviors of effective problem-finders. To discover the small problems and failures that threaten your organization, you must do the following:
- Circumvent the gatekeepers: Remove the filters at times, and go directly to the source to see and hear the raw data. Listen aggressively to the people actually doing the work.32 Keep in touch with what is happening at the periphery of your business, not simply at the core.
- Become an ethnographer: Many anthropologists observe people in natural settings, which is known as ethnographic research. Emulate them. Do not simply ask people how things are going. Do not depend solely on data from surveys and focus groups. Do not simply listen to what people say; watch what they do—much like an anthropologist. Go out and observe how employees, customers, and suppliers actually behave. Effective problem-finders become especially adept at observing the unexpected without allowing preconceptions to cloud what they are seeing.
- Hunt for patterns: Reflect on and refine your individual and collective pattern-recognition capability. Focus on the efficacy of your personal and organizational processes for drawing analogies to past experiences. Search deliberately for patterns amidst disparate data points in the organization.
- Connect the dots: Recognize that large-scale failures often are preceded by small problems that occur in different units of the organization. Foster improved sharing of information, and build mechanisms to help people integrate critical data and knowledge. You will "connect the dots" among issues that may initially seem unrelated, but in fact, have a great deal in common.
- Encourage useful failures: Create a "Red Pencil Award" philosophy akin to the one at Build-a-Bear. Encourage people to take risks and to come forward when mistakes are made. Reduce the fear of failure in the organization. Help your people understand the difference between excusable and inexcusable mistakes.
- Teach how to talk and listen: Give groups of frontline employees training in a communication technique, such as Crew Resource Management, that helps them surface and discuss problems and concerns in an effective manner. Provide senior executives with training on how to encourage people to speak up, and then how to handle their comments and concerns appropriately.
- Watch the game film: Like a coach, reflect systematically on your organization's conduct and performance, as well as on the behavior and performance of competitors. Learn about and seek to avoid the typical traps that firms encounter when they engage in lessons learned and competitive-intelligence exercises. Create opportunities for individuals and teams to practice desired behaviors so as to enhance their performance, much like elite athletic performers do.