Problem solving and organisational learning are two topics that are closely related to each other. So often, organisations appear to be ‘hard-wired’ in a way that they means they focus on solving immediate problems without spending time assessing root causes. It is all-too-easy to get caught in a fire-fighting doom-loop where symptoms are addressed rather than root causes, and everyone is consumed with tactical ‘busy-work’. This is akin to a motorist who keeps topping up their car with engine oil but doesn’t look for a leak. This works well for weeks until the leak suddenly gets worse and the engine is ruined in a catastrophic and expensive failure.
I was mulling this over recently whilst eating at a breakfast buffet in a hotel. I went to get a glass of juice, only to find there were no glasses left. No problem, I thought, I’ll let one of the hotel staff know and they’ll get it fixed. I caught the eye of a friendly waitress and explained the predicament, she apologetically looked at the empty shelf and immediately went away to put things right. She came back within minutes, clutching a single glass—passing it on to me. I said thank you, and before I could say anything further she smiled and scurried off to her next task. It was very busy, and I suspect she was under quite a lot of pressure to ensure her list of tasks were completed.
Problem solving and Organisational Learning
On the face of it, I received really good service from this waitress—she was friendly, and she solved my (very minor) problem. However, in her (quite understandable) rush to attend to other ‘urgent’ matters, the problem she saw affected the problem she solved. The surface problem (“guest without a glass”) was solved quickly and efficiently. Yet, a few moments later I saw another guest hovering round, looking for a glass—presumably she asked a member of staff for one too. The root cause hadn’t been solved—or it certainly hadn’t been solved quickly.
These types of situations provide us with the opportunity to problem-solve at multiple levels, and the way we frame problems will affect the types of solutions or interventions that we consider. Questions that could have been asked in this situation include:
|Problem ‘appreciated’ and examined||Possible intervention||Will problem recur?||Has system adapted/ learnt?|
|The guest doesn’t have a glass||Find the guest a glass||Yes, within minutes||No|
|The guest doesn’t have a glass because the glasses weren’t re-stocked||Find the guest a glass
Re-stock the glasses
|Yes, within hours||No|
|The guest doesn’t have a glass because the glasses weren’t re-stocked because nobody is responsible for monitoring the glasses||Find the guest a glass
Re-stock the glasses
Suggest (and implement) a way of monitoring the glasses (this could be achieved in a number of ways, perhaps having an individual team member responsible for periodically checking the glasses, or perhaps the team that wash up could notify the waiting team when a certain number of glasses are in the dishwasher. There are undoubtedly automatic notification options too)
|No, assuming intervention is correctly tested, implemented & reviewed||Yes|
We could go even further, to find other root causes. I am sure many people will be familiar with the ‘five whys’. This is indeed a useful technique for laddering down, but it is important to note that in most situations there are many root causes. A single application of five whys may identify one chain of causation, but it’s important to ‘ladder up’ and then back ‘down’ to find others. Using this (and other) elicitation techniques alongside a fishbone diagram or multiple cause diagram can help us to explore these options. This can lead to a divergence of other creative discussions too—for example why does the guest need a glass at all? This perhaps sounds crazy, but I was recently at a conference where each delegate was given a free re-usable water bottle. If re-usable water bottles are given at the beginning of conferences, think of all the washing up (or plastic waste) it would save!
As business analysts and practitioners of holistic change, it is crucial that we work with our stakeholders to understand these deeper levels of problems. Doing so helps our organisations to learn. To adapt and embed practices, procedures and knowledge so that problems don’t reoccur. And it is crucial that we work towards cultivating a climate where ongoing learning and adaptation is the norm. After all, in business, as in nature, it is often those that can adapt to their external environment that survive.
What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!
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About the author:
Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.
To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com