4 steps for driving problems out of your business

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Every business has an abundance of challenges. The best organizations learn how to clearly identify and solve those problems so that they never reappear. Unfortunately, the majority of businesses take shortcuts when trying to eliminate problems, which of course lets them keep popping back up like a game of whack-a-mole.

To address problems and drive them out of your organization requires a number of steps that keeps you moving forward and putting those challenges behind you:

1. Define problems as specific conditions

The simplest definition of a problem is that “what should be happening” (WSBH) and “what is happening” (WIH) are not the same. If WSBH is not crystal clear, then problem descriptions tend to be so general as to be misleading.

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Start by clearly identifying the challenge: That piece of equipment is not running; should it be? How can I tell at a glance? If we expect incoming customer calls to reach a live person within 30 seconds (WSBH), are they (WIH)? If it’s not easy to identify both WSBH and WIH at a glance, you won’t know you have a problem until it has become a big one.

2. Prioritize which problems to attack now, and which you are willing to live with a bit longer

All of your employees have brains, and with proper training, can help you solve problems. If you rely on management as the only resource, challenges will crop up faster than you can eliminate them. That’s why the phrase “everyone, every day” is so important in companies striving to be great. The less you develop and utilize these valuable resources, the more problems will result, adding to frustration and squelching success.

3. Once you identify the problem, create an unbiased problem statement

“We have too many employees” only has one solution: reduce the number of employees. That’s a biased statement. Instead, try this: “Our labor costs are higher than targeted,” with facts to support how the target was established and what labor costs truly are. The statement is unbiased and allows analysis into the condition. There are many reasons why actual labor costs may be higher than target, and the number of employees is only one of them.

4. Identify the root cause

As long as opinions, no matter how feverishly voiced, define your problems, bias is present and you will not eliminate the issue from your future. And if you listen, those opinions are usually more about alleged solutions than about understanding the real problem.

A deceptively simple approach to identifying root cause is the “five why” process, which is not easy, but it’s effective. This process starts with the problem statement. Then, you answer the question “why” to that. Then, again, ask “why” to that statement. Again and again (five is just an estimate, not a rule) until you believe you have reached root cause. But before you cheer, follow your logic from the bottom step-by-step back up to the problem statement, saying “therefore” as you move along. If you cannot do that, your five-why logic is invalid and your search continues.

If you believe you have identified root cause, then and only then can you begin to discuss potential solutions. Remember: If we don’t agree on the problem, we’ll never agree on the solution. Before you implement the solution, create your Plan-Do-Check-Adjust roles and responsibilities and execute them.

If that specific problem reoccurs, you did not find the true root cause, or other causes remain. If you did find the root cause and identified and implemented an appropriate permanent countermeasure, the problem will not reappear — you will have driven it from your business forever.