Find the cause, fix the problem

All organisations encounter problems from time to time. But it’s all too common for us to focus on attributing blame, rather than on getting to the bottom of what’s gone wrong. This wastes time, money and effort. It also doesn’t solve the actual problem. But there is another way.

It’s rare for everything to run smoothly all of the time. Projects get delayed, processes go awry and customer service suffers the occasional blip. Problems are inevitable. Which is why it’s important that, when they arise, we deal with them proactively and effectively.

Sadly, this isn’t necessarily how we’re hard-wired to behave. When we encounter a problem, we  – and by ‘we’ I mean other people, obviously, not you and me – have a tendency to either (a) curse loudly and kick something or (b) assign blame to someone who isn’t us and grumble darkly into our coffee.

Neither of these approaches, I think it’s fair to say, has a particularly positive track record in actually solving the problem.

Thankfully, there’s a better way of dealing with problems.

But before we get onto that, let’s think first about what we mean by a ‘problem’. Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe suggest, in their book The Rational Manager, that a problem has three elements.

  1. There’s a deviation in reality from our aspiration or expectation, i.e. things aren’t happening as we want them to. (If things are doing fine, then obviously there’s no problem.)
  2. The cause of the deviation is unknown. (If we know what’s causing the issue, then again there’s no problem, as we can take action to fix it.)
  3. We actually care about the deviation and its impact. (If we don’t care, then there’s no problem and this is all a moot point.)

If there’s been a deviation from our expectations, we don’t know what caused it and we care enough to want to fix it, then we have a problem that we need to solve.

The key to effective problem solving is to recognise that problems have causes. If there is a problem where there wasn’t one before, then something has changed. (Or, I’d argue, something has not changed when it should have.)

If we’re going to solve the problem, we need to determine what has changed. Or what should have changed but hasn’t.

It might be that there’s been a software update and it’s caused something to stop working. Or an essential delivery has been delayed and work on-site can’t progress. Or a member of staff has called in sick and a critical task hasn’t been undertaken.

It might not always be obvious what the problem-causing change has been, but we’re almost certainly looking for something that changed shortly before the problem arose. And it’s likely to be a one-off or irregular change, otherwise we’d have noticed the problem before.

Once we’ve identified the change that’s causing the problem, we have three options.

Firstly, we can choose to live with the problem and accept it as the new reality. One might argue that this isn’t really solving the problem, as such. And they’d probably have a point.

Secondly, we can adapt to the new situation. This is a bit like living with the problem, except that we take some form of action to mitigate its impact. This might be a temporary measure or it might be a permanent solution, depending on the circumstances.

Thirdly, we can take corrective action to fix the problem. This remedies the problem permanently by removing its cause or undoing the change that gave rise to it.

The approach we choose to take will depend on a number of factors, including the impact of the problem, the cost of resolving it and what we can realistically hope to achieve. Some problems are quick, easy and cheap to resolve. Others, sadly, are not.

If I find that my car’s overheating engine is caused by a leak in the coolant system (the underlying change being a hole in a seal that wasn’t there yesterday), then I could choose to adapt to the situation by adding more coolant from time to time. But it’s probably more cost-effective to fit a new seal and fix the leak permanently.

On the other hand, if my car’s electrically-heated seats stop working, due to some kind of damage to the wiring, and it’s going to cost £2,000 to replace the whole seat, then I might decide that I’m happy to just live with unheated seats. Or adapt by fitting one of those sheepskin seat covers.

(I’d like to make it clear, at this point, that my car doesn’t actually have heated seats. Though it does currently have a coolant leak for which I’m awaiting a new seal.)

Regardless of how we choose to resolve a problem, we’re making a conscious choice. And we can only do so if we get to the bottom of the change that caused it in the first place. This is the essence of problem-solving. Not as satisfying as cursing loudly and kicking something, perhaps, but infinitely more effective.

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