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use company culture to solve problems at work

Leverage Your Workplace Culture to Solve Problems at the Source

Problem-solving is a big part of every manager's job. You remove obstacles and resolve issues, so your team can get things done. How you and your organization deal with setbacks reflects the company's culture. Do you first ask who messed up? Or do you look for what went wrong, and how to fix it? Do you just want to put out the fire? Or are you willing to invest the time to identify the root cause and develop a permanent solution?

Root-cause analysis is a systematic approach to resolving crises and preventing their recurrence. Unlike treating symptoms and haphazardly putting out fires, it seeks to identify where a process or system failed.

While root-cause analysis is optimal, it isn't always done. Consider an American car manufacturer that experienced high warranty claims for a window washer motor. Management did not ask why the motors were failing. Instead, they built more manufacturing capacity for window washer motors. This effort was compounded by a culture where no one dared escalate the predicament to senior management.

Finding the root cause of a breakdown takes time. Effort is required to explore conditions leading up to the problem, determine the underlying concern, and develop new procedures. Yet root cause analysis saves time and money in the future when you don't have to address the same issue repeatedly.

Tame the Emotions

When the unplanned happens, emotions run high. Customers complain. Internal customers are impatient for a solution. Those who dropped the ball are upset and embarrassed. Co-workers get angry with one another.

Along with heightened emotion comes the tendency to assign blame. In some companies, employees are afraid to report bad news. They fear reprisal and are quick to point fingers at someone else in an attempt at self-preservation.

When Alan Mulally joined Ford as CEO, he implemented a color-coded system for staff updates. Reports were to be coded green for good news, yellow for caution, and red for concern. At his first team meeting, he saw a sea of green reports. No one dared acknowledge any problems in their operating units. Mulally reminded his team that the company had lost a few billion dollars the prior year, so clearly, not everything was going well. When someone finally admitted troubles in his unit, the CEO praised him for his vulnerability.

Leadership needs to understand what’s happening in the operations, whether it’s running smoothly or experiencing hiccups. But they cannot chastise the messenger or culprit when things go wrong.

Eliminate Blame Culture

Before you examine your problem-solving methods, ensure an underlying blameless environment. In a blame culture, people are targeted when things go wrong. Employees are singled out, shamed, and criticized. Blame culture asks, “Who dropped the ball?” instead of “Where did our systems and processes fail?”  It’s much easier to point fingers at a person or department instead of doing the harder but more valuable exercise of fixing the underlying cause and ensuring the problem does not happen again.

In contrast to blame culture is an environment of psychological safety where staff are encouraged to speak up with concerns and questions. There is no shooting the messenger. Employees feel safe sharing good and bad news; they may even be commended for their courage.

Root Cause Analysis

Unlike the “who” of blame culture, root cause analysis focuses on the “how” and “why” something happened. The technique has three goals:

1.   Identify the source of the problem.
2.   Fix it.
3.   Prevent it from happening again.

Asking “why” uncovers reasons for the error or system breakdown. It may provide insight into your procedures; it can deliver short-term relief. Yet, it may not get to the crux of the matter.

Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries Corp., developed the practice known as “5 Whys” during Toyota's early days. A troubleshooting team drills down into why something went wrong and explores answers. The underlying cause should become evident by the fifth iteration of asking why. The 5-Why tool is also used in Kaizen, lean manufacturing, and Six Sigma.

It may be tempting to address and correct the symptoms of a glitch. If customers call to complain about a defective product, one easy response is to refund their money. Once the symptoms are gone, it may seem you fixed the issue. Yet you can't continue to ship defective products. Treating symptoms is like trimming an invasive weed without removing the root. A quick fix will likely not prevent the situation from recurring.

The Importance of Process

Root cause analysis helps prevent knee-jerk reactions based on assumptions. It also shuts down vague excuses such as inadequate resources or time. The solution becomes continually clearer through detailed answers to each round of queries. A failed process is usually identified by the fifth iteration. Then, the question is, “Why did the system fail, and how do we fix it?”

Root cause analysis must lead to an implementable solution or process change. Some companies add questions such as "Why not?” or ask “5 Hows” in developing resolutions. The key is to answer the question, "What are we going to do differently going forward to eliminate the possibility of the same problem recurring?”

Data quality is an area that benefits from root-cause analysis. Many organizations suffer from poor data quality, which they use to make decisions. It is time-consuming and costly to clean up data after the fact using software tools and labor-intensive approaches. Yet, changing the process to perform quality control measures at the data collection point may rectify the issue.

Only You Can Prevent Firefighting

Some company cultures and even individuals are addicted to firefighting. They love the heroics and adrenaline. Managers rush from problem to problem. They rarely resolve anything before they run to the next crisis. Drawbacks outnumber staff who can address them. Patch solutions are prevalent. Those who extinguish the blaze are lauded.

Under firefighting conditions, managers make gut decisions and never spend the time to get to the source of a problem. They put on a patch and move on. Patching isn't always a bad thing; it prevents a situation from worsening. But it doesn't necessarily prevent recurrence.

Some companies never fight fires despite their struggles with resources and work levels. According to Roger Bohn in The Harvard Business Review, these companies “have strong problem-solving cultures. They don’t tackle a problem unless they’re committed to understanding its root cause and finding a valid solution. They perform triage. They set realistic deadlines. Perhaps most important, they don’t reward firefighting." Leadership sets the tone as to whether firefighting is rewarded or avoided.

Creating a Strong Problem-Solving Culture

Problem-solving is an inevitable part of any business. Things are going to go wrong. How issues are tackled reflects your organization’s culture. Ensure that blameless problem-solving is a pillar of your culture. Create an environment of accountability with a focus on addressing process breakdowns rather than finger-pointing. Leadership needs to model this behavior. It is impossible to create a blameless culture if the leaders' immediate response to a setback is, "Who caused this?"

Further, incorporate root cause analysis into your continuous improvement efforts. Continuous improvement should be part of your culture, not just a periodic exercise. You do routine maintenance on manufacturing equipment to ensure it runs properly. The same principle should apply to how your team approaches their work processes.

Regular "check-ups" on your systems and processes can prevent major glitches. But when problems occur, consider them improvement opportunities. Root cause analysis is about remedying issues and preventing their recurrence, so ensure problem-solving leads to process change.