Saturday, September 14, 2013

The most neglected question: What problem are you trying to solve?

I've been a consultant, in one capacity or another, since 1994. Throughout this I have worked with and implemented a great many systems, solutions and technologies that proclaim to solve problems. Some of them work, some work for awhile and some are doomed to failure from the outset.

Since we consultants are a greedy lot, we sell our services on either a hefty day rate or an equally hefty project fee, the occasional consultant will even work on a gain share: that is they get a share of your good fortune.

There is nothing wrong with this, many companies have benefited from the use of "outside hired guns" to solve problems, particularly when the company has taken the time to determine what problem it is trying to solve.

My expertise, which includes, safety process, leadership development and performance metrics is varied enough that I can usually adapt to most any situation. Often though, I'm hired to solve the wrong problem.

My favourite example of this is a sawmill project  in Hines Creek, Alberta in 1997. After my boss and  I giving the client the standard spiel about measurement, feedback, involvement and accountability, the grizzled old mill manager leaned across the table and asked "that's all real nice son, but can you weld?"
I replied "yes I could but did he understand why I was there?
It was a less than auspicious beginning.

After early termination of the contract and a bogus offer by my soon to be former employer to move to Bella Coola BC, I thought to myself  "you know, Ted really did need some good weldors"

(That is not a typo,  a welder s a machine, a weldor is the person skilled in its use, see I do know a little about it)

Ted's boss was very impressed with my work in a completely different situation and in his mind all that was necessary for success was to transition me from one place to another.  As my boss and I both shared the need for billable days, we damned the torpedoes, didn't bother to properly address the real question and failed.

We did not identify what problem we were trying to solve.

In the legislature this happens all the time: laws with good intent are enacted without a clear understanding of the problem. Take, for example distracted driving.

If ever a pointless bit of legislation existed, it's distracted driving. Rather than go so far as to say passengers are a distraction we simply made it illegal to talk on the phone, eat a burger or comb our hair. Having a yappy dog on your lap apparently is ok.

Now I agree that distracted driving, such as texting is stupid so I only text at red lights, but that too is illegal. Law enforcement has gone so far as to ticket drivers who pull off to the shoulder to make a call unless the vehicle is in park and shut off.

I was unclear then and I continue to be as to what problem was being solved.

On a municipal level, I challenge all on council to articulate what problem the arena is supposed to solve, or the airport closure or those chrome balls on the white mud. In every case I propose that no one knows the real answer.  These people aren't stupid, they simply get caught up in the solution and skip the messy part of trying to figure out why we need one.

For companies the answers are often more confusing with abstracts like "team" or "work flow" when in reality the problem could be market share, profitability or productivity.
The current rage for data mining, gathering and assimilation usually doesn't take results into account. There is no point in mining data until you have a need for data and until you know and can articulate it. We can measure anything but it is foolish to think that everything is worth measuring, unless you already know what problem you are trying to solve.
In my role, I teach the art of using tools like measurement to solve problems. I do this formally at first then later, once the user "gets it" I let them determine their own best process.
I'm the guy who sees the big picture and understands the psychology of it, business people should be too busy with their business to be experts on process.
The climate of business has changed in America (I can't speak for the rest of the world) today we are faced with boomers can't retire, schools still think only dumb kids go into the trades or drive trucks, foreign workers and essentially zero unemployment for people with any kind of skill or inclination at all.
Business needs to examine itself very carefully and ask "what problem are we trying to solve?" There is no longer enough extra personnel or margin to manage by numbers alone. Oil sands companies are faced, as are many other industries with very high labour cost, relatively low productivity to the point that the viability of much of it is in jeopardy.
Now before we all panic and import a bunch of people or blame the government in some false hope of getting the job done on time and on budget it's time to actually assess what problem we are trying to solve. It's a difficult and uncomfortable question, we solve solutions so much that often the problem is subordinate entirely.
My interest and apparently life's work after 20 odd years, comes down to carefully helping businesses figure out what problem is greatest and which one needs to be solved first.
It's a lot easier said than done but when it works, it's spectacular. 

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