By JAMIE WEISS, Senior Consultant, Kepner-Tregoe Inc.
This is part two of a two-part piece. Part one can be found here.
Avoiding Solution-Caused Problems
Solution-caused problems are surprisingly pervasive, but they can be avoided. There are three elements required to minimize the occurrence of solution-caused problems and, if a problem does occur, to reduce its impact without creating more problems.
1. An Analytical Approach — Asking the question, “What could go wrong?” is a start, but solely asking the question, and even listing a few potential problems, will not by itself minimize the chance of something going wrong. Our experience tells us that you have to be quite detailed about the potential problems, specific enough to be able to hypothesize some likely causes for each potential problem.
2. A Change Management System — In the heat of the moment, such as when trying to get a costly line back up and running again, people may skip steps in order to speed up the process. One of the first steps skipped is asking, “What might go wrong?” As a result, we find that building a potential problem analysis step into the approach is required to channel behavior. It may sound cynical to say, but most people are not rational unless they have to be, and will tend to avoid painstaking analysis if they can.
3. A Learning Culture — Finally, to apply potential problem analysis, the company must build a culture that accepts the fact that unanticipated problems will occur, and believes that it is better to consider them in advance than try to react to them after they occur.
One subtle cause of a non-learning culture is in the human performance systems that companies develop to reward employees. When it comes to problems and potential problems, there is a built-in structural asymmetry. It is easy to see if someone has solved a problem — all you have to do is look to see if the product or the processes associated with it are up to spec again.
On the other hand, it is close to impossible to ascertain whether someone has successfully prevented a potential problem from occurring. The only aspect available to examine is the fact of non-occurrence, which can be explained by assuming there never was a potential problem in the first place, or that some other unplanned event prevented it from occurring. In short, you cannot prove that your preventive action minimized the probability of the problem occurring, or that your contingent action minimized the effects, thus leading companies to recognize employees who solve problems, but not those who prevent them.
Solution-caused problems are all too common and are an indication of an incomplete approach to resolving issues. Companies can quickly earn back multiples of the time and money they invest by installing the skills needed to attack problems, systems to track them and a mindset that values preventing them.