By Andrew Vermes, Kepner-Tregoe

Recently we asked a diverse group who use our Problem Analysis methods about the proportion of the problems that they face at work that are non-technical. The consensus was 50-50. While many organizations need systematic problem solving to resolve service desk, manufacturing, compliance or other technical issues, taking an analytic approach to problem solving also has a secure place in finding solutions to all kinds of other problems.

Unfortunately when a problem occurs, it is common to look for someone to blame. But based on our experience, it’s likely to be the system, not the person at fault. One tragic occurrence of blaming people when the cause was unknown, is the 1994 crash of an RAF Chinook helicopter flying in fog in Scotland.

A controversial report blamed pilot error for the crash with all onboard dead. Seventeen years later, the case was revisited and a revised report cleared the pilots of negligence and concluded that there were known problems with the navigation systems. The tragic loss of life was compounded by bad problem analysis. Approaching a problem analytically focuses on facts not blame, an approach that can improve problem solving at the outset. Instead of starting with Who did it? or What caused it?, we ask, What happened?

Improve problem diagnosis

When things go wrong, we often look at the last known activity because we know that cause often comes from change. What we don’t want to do is ask WHO was involved too early. As soon as people feel the finger of blame pointed at them, there is a natural tendency to clam up and not be free with information. By looking for who did it rather than systematically identifying what happened can bring investigations to a halt and result in blaming rather than problem solving.

Punishing the person is also common in a modern version of kill the messenger. In many organizations, the person who points out the problem is assigned the task of resolving it. This can create a natural reluctance if reporting a problem results in the negative feedback of extra work instead of positive appreciation and gratitude.

Do “human factors issues” really indicate a deficiency on the part of a person? Perhaps not. It’s easy to blame someone for actions or inaction such as:

“He always does that”

“She lacks experience”

“Motivation’s just not what it was”

However, most performance issues are more complex than failure by the individual. For example, Sales and Marketing numbers may place blame on the individuals in Sales and Marketing for not reaching goals. But looking at problems analytically and asking, What is going on? may reveal better insights. One of the great uses of Problem Analysis is to determine why we are not selling what we ought to be selling. 

In the problem identified in the graphic shown just below, clients had said they wanted the company’s products, but they’re not selling. By using an analytical approach, we move from “Region 5 sales down” (area salespeople to blame) to focused data about what happened. The KT approach looks at both what IS going on and what IS NOT. In this case, we drill down to show that sales are down in only one product line, in one region, dropping 18% beginning in late January.  Now sales have stabilized at a new level. By diagnosing the problem on a more granular level, it focuses the investigation from failure of the sales staff to issues around a specific product in a certain area. This investigation goes a long way toward diagnosing problems and will help adjust the approach to the market going forward.

Facts not blame

Unless you saw someone doing something wrong, avoid putting a person into a problem by leading with Who did it. When dealing with people and teams, show respect by focusing on:

What happened?

When did it happen?

Under what circumstances?

KT Problem Analysis further focuses this information by also capturing IS NOTs, that is, what, when and under what circumstances it did not happen. By specifying the problem more completely, an investigation can move quickly towards the cause and ultimately the solution.

 

KT has a powerful toolkit for root cause analysis and preventing future problems

 

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