Throughout the years I have had the opportunity to work for and with many organizations and teams. And all of them had their own way of dealing with problems. Some were not aware of their problems, and also saw no need to change this; others did see their problems, but — like some kind of Pavlov reaction — declared these as just being part of doing business and swept their problems under the carpet. Other organizations certainly are aware of their problems and some see these even as opportunities to improve their business. Finally, in certain organizations, even the absence of problems is seen as a problem. In what kind of organization are you working?
Problems: Perception and Attitude
Across the organizations and teams I have worked with, I have seen important differences in the way these organizations and teams see and deal with their problems. In this blog post I will try and characterize four typical situations that you can come across.
Some organizations and teams have a certain blindness for their problems in the sense that their problems are not actually seen as problems. In general what I see here is that problems often have been transformed in to regular work and even full-time jobs. Some managerial and functional support staff roles sometimes even depend upon the existence of problems. Most of their daily work consists of correcting problems. As a result problems are not even perceived as problems but as work.
Consequently, the trigger for finding the root causes of these problems and taking structural counter measures has ceased to be present. This is even more the case when no challenge is provided and, as a result, problems are not exposed. I have even seen teams turn self-complacent just because of the above.
Other teams and organizations perhaps do see their problems, but live in an organizational culture where problems have always been accepted. Typical remarks that one can hear in such organizations are, for example: “Problems are part of doing business”, “These problems just cannot be eliminated” and “We cannot do anything about these problems”.
Managers accept problems, are not looking for the actual root causes, but instead hire people and implement systems to manage around their problems. Or even worse, problems are just a result of human failure or just plain incompetence on behalf of the personnel. Almost in all these cases, these teams and organizations ignore the fact that most problems are created, and consequently that they can be eliminated by people. In brief, problems are recognized, but accepted as a fact of life with little to no action.
Another situation may exist in which organizations and teams do not only recognize their problems, but actually truly face them. Problems are seen as a consequence of a logical sequence of certain events and conditions present in a process that eventually led to the problem at hand. A problem is seen as a glaring signal, a symptom, of a deeper lying cause in the existing system of work. A problem therefore often is characterized as an opportunity to better understand this system of “how work actually works” and consequently to improve it. Problems are recognized and methodically and rigorously analyzed, and the system of work is improved based upon the team’s learning.
Finally, there is the situation where seemingly no problems exist. Where there apparently is no further opportunity to improve. In other words, where everything is perfect. Really? Of course nothing is ever perfect. For some organizations this implies, that when no problems are being detected anymore, the bar should be moved up a few notches so that new challenges become visible. Like Mario Andretti said: “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough”. For certain organizations, therefore, the apparent absence of problems is only a sign of a no longer adequate detection system. These organizations pro-actively seek new problems and challenges to be able to distill improvements from them. “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all”, Taiichi Ohno of Toyota already stated in the middle of the previous century.
What Situation is Applicable in Your Organization?
Of course, the above depicted 2×2 block, like many similar models of management, is just a simplification of reality. But it may help positioning teams and organizations and addressing behavior. When continual improvement is the ambition, teams and organizations should transform themselves and ensure that problems are detected as soon as possible and that these problems are seen as opportunities to learn about and further improve the system of work. Organizations must shed their blindness for problems and stop accepting the situation in which problems are apparently acceptable. Without the right perception and attitude towards problems, striving for continual improvement will soon be frustrated.
So the next time you’re together with your team, try and position yourself in terms of problem perception and attitude. Where do you fit?