Problems are not just about what is broken, they are also about what needs to break

By Drew Marshall, Kepner-Tregoe

Our organizations today are large, complex, multi-variant value generation engines. From a procedural perspective, they are often convoluted and time-intensive. As such, they are prone to failures both large and small. Spending your time addressing those failures in your organization is a noble pursuit. Restoration of the value creating mechanisms is essential to the life of the whole operation. It is very easy to get sucked into an endless treadmill of mitigation, repair and restoration. What if you’re missing the bigger picture?

For years we, at Kepner-Tregoe, have been focused on helping our clients address the most pervasive and challenging issues in their organizations. With pharma companies we’ve worked with their teams to ensure the safe and effective manufacture of life-giving drugs. At consumer companies we met the challenge to ensure distribution channels were able to accommodate the demands of rapid growth. We have helped to solve quality, timeliness, variability, waste, and hundreds of other issues across industries and sectors. For many of us, however, the true promise of problem solving is not in the correction of the present issue. It comes from stepping back and asking whether this process, or system, or business model has outlived its useful purpose, and how we might transform it to make it better.

At the heart of this mindset is what we call, “thinking beyond the fix.” It is a simple enough approach driven by the need to prevent problems at the process level from becoming wider problems at the systems level or higher. Like all the processes that drive our approach to problem solving and decision making, it is - a question-driven technique. When solving a problem, we ask, “What other damage could this cause create?”, “Where else could this cause create problems?”, and “What caused the cause?” These questions help us to extend our understanding of the cause so that we can more thoroughly address its effects.

There is more to this approach. Additional questions, too rarely asked, help us extend the fix and think beyond it. When we ask, “What identical things need the same fix?” and, “What problems could this fix cause?” we seek to expose the system ramifications we are truly facing. We’re on the hunt for the broader implications of the problem to consider elements of risk as well as the potential opportunities that every issue presents.

These potential opportunities are very important for the long-term health of any organization. Because the timeframe for taking meaningful action on opportunities is longer than most organizations expect, these meaningful actions are rarely addressed, except by the best performing companies. The number of times I have counseled senior leaders focused on the urgency to keep systems running at the expense of slowing down to consider a broader action that serves the future, is sadly, too many to count. Yet, these broader and longer reaching actions are essential for organizational health and prosperity.

Potential opportunities highlight the positive future for the organization. They are truly a strategic consideration born out of an operational failure. Think of this process like hitting the pause button. This gives you the time and space to consider whether the process you are troubleshooting fits the present and future needs of your operation. As former Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emmanuel once said, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.”

Sometimes a process that persistently breaks is evidence of a deeper issue, a legacy of poor past decision making we get to live with forever. This problem may be an indicator of a need to dig a little deeper into the strategic issues at play. Too often, that indicator is overwhelmed by other urgent needs in the enterprise. We then lay down a Band-Aid and move on as rapidly as we can, to the next loudest siren or brightest warning light. What may be needed is not a fix but a transformation.

Tackling short-term thinking is a struggle for us all. The Nobel Prize-winning Economist, Daniel Kahneman, in his research with Amos Tversky proposed two ways of thinking – Systems 1 and Systems 2. Systems 1 thinking drives most problem solving in the enterprise, it is fast, instinctual, and emotive. And it is primarily driven by immediate and pressing concerns for survival. It is Systems 2 thinking that we want to drive toward. It is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. To employ that approach, you need to slow down and consider how to make space for thinking about the future.

Using another of KT’s processes, Situation Appraisal, we suggest you take a moment to step back and ask some additional investigative questions, “How well is this process serving the wider set of needs in our operations?”, “How streamlined is this process?”, and “How well does this system serve the strategic needs of the organization?” We use this approach to identify the high-level concerns that exist in problem prone environments and to consider this an opportunity to define and design a better way.

Taking the time to think beyond the immediate implications of a problem is incredibly important so that you don’t waste time, energy, and resources on repeating an endless break/fix cycle. Those who think way beyond the fix to view the broader system, who  consider that a present problem may be a sign of a more profound need, who make time to rethink fundamentals in ways that prevent future problems and unlock hidden value, are the ones who win the strategic game and build an organization that will endure.

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About Kepner-Tregoe

We all hope that you are well during this disruptive time in our world’s history.  For over 60 years Kepner-Tregoe has had the opportunity to help major organizations navigate successfully through radical change and difficult circumstances. We help solve intractable problems and increase incident & problem-management performance through tools, training and consulting – leading to highly effective teams ready to respond to your company’s most critical issues.