Understanding the Problem

Picture this:  You’re a leader in an organization, perusing financial and safety reports compiled by managers tasked to boost sales, cut costs, and grow safety and quality. In one report, you see exactly the opposite happening. So what do you do?

You call that manager, have him or her explain why this is happening and he or she insists: “There’s nothing to worry about. That has happened before, it was taken care of and this time it won’t be any different.” You hand out targets and a deadline and ask to stay updated. Case closed.

A great lean leader takes a different path early on in this process. The manager is called in, but the first priority is understanding every messy detail of the problem and making sure he or she does as well. Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a problem is “a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution.” The word “solution” isn’t last by accident.

While many of us are equipped to be “firefighters” and immediately jump to solutions, that’s tantamount to giving fever-suppressing paracetamol to a hospital patient. The symptom is resolved but the underlying cause is just waiting to come back.

First, we must recognize the type of problem at hand.

Author John Shook in his book Managing to Learn defines two types of problems:

Shook Problem Types
John Shook's Problem Types

It is important to understand that the presenting problem e.g. increase costs, a safety hazard, decreasing sales in some way relates to the way work is designed or being done.

What is the Right Thing to Do?

When I moved to the United States from India nine years ago, an important early addition to my vocabulary was the word “silo.” In agriculture, it’s a structure used for the bulk storage of grains. Outside that trade, though, it’s used widely to describe the compartmentalization that forms inside organizations.

Ohio Silo
Ohio Silo by Mrinalina Gadkari

When I saw a silo for the first time upon moving to Ohio six months ago, I snapped a photo, a reminder to myself and my students of how difficult it would be for departments and units with that mentality to communicate with each other.

This happens in many organizations. Everyone follows protocol in their own department, happy they’re meeting targets set by management. The notion of how one’s job is affecting workers in another department rarely surfaces, nor does a worker’s idea of how his or her job is affecting the overall service, product or customer base. “Us” and “them” sentiments are predominant, as is the phrase, “I followed protocol. It’s not my problem.” But it is. The silo problem is a reality in most organizations in all industries.

So how do you deal with it?

Start by asking a simple question: “What is the right thing to do?” With those seven words, barriers break, people step up and take responsibility and what is “not my problem” becomes everyone’s problem.

As author John Shook writes in his book Managing to Learn, switching from a so-called authority based debate (Who is at fault?) to a responsibility focused conversation (What is the right thing to do?) has a radical impact on decision-making. Consensus forms and decisions are made by focusing on indisputable facts, not projecting blame.

How have you worked to break silos in your organization?