The BIG Problem With Problem Solving

If you are in an operations role, you likely enjoy problem solving. It can be fun, challenging and satisfying. But, there is a BIG problem with problem solving….it happens too late in the process. At that point, we did not meet our customers’ needs, we missed our performance goals or we spent more than what we budgeted.

In addition, when we invest most of our time in problem solving and fighting fires, we no longer have the time for more value added activities like coaching, training, mentoring, strategic planning etc.

Problem prevention is where the party is!  By focusing most of our time on problem prevention activities, we begin to build a work environment that is far more likely to achieve or exceed business objectives AND sustain that performance over time.

Here are some ideas to shift your department’s focus from problem solving to problem prevention.

1) Understand which activities lead to the most successful outcomes

There are a number of similar activities, or lack of, that lead up to any problem occurring.

Let’s use the concept of “healthy weight” as an example. By exercising and eating the right foods on an ongoing basis, we can help prevent our bodies from becoming overweight. If we spend most of our days sitting on the coach watching TV and eating McDonald’s fast food, we increase the likelihood we will become overweight. The whole business of “weight loss” focuses on the end of the process, i.e. problem solving, when we may be unhealthy, putting undo stress on our bones and organs.

Understand which activities in your organization or department lead to the most successful outcomes. If you run a sales team, you know that your top producers spend their time on different activities than your lower performers (e.g. more customer facing time, than admin time). If you run a technical support team, you know that there are certain activities (e.g. asking the right questions, keeping customers informed) that help your analysts close cases faster with better accuracy.

Once you understand these activities, you can turn them into standard operation procedures, training documentation and the basis for coaching discussions.

2) Build in early warning systems

When the wrong activities begin to mount, build in early warning systems that notify the right people at the right time so they can redirect the situation towards a successful outcome.

For example, most customer service departments have SLA’s (service level agreements) for resolving certain types of requests within a certain amount of time. Your order entry or CRM systems should allow you to monitor the time between when the request is open and when the request is closed. By adding an email alert to managers at a certain time in the process, if it appears that the request is taking longer than it should, your leaders can reach out to your customer service reps to help, before your SLA goal is missed.

3) Avoid the Band-Aid

When we skin our knee, it is great to have a band-aid around to cover the problem- and that is what band-aid problem solving practices do; they cover temporarily but do not prevent.Solution To Business Problems | Image Courtesy Of Scott Chan

When possible, avoid the quick-fix and take the time to understand the why and the root causes behind the problem(s), so the solutions can eliminate the problem over the long term.

4) Demonstrate the ROI on problem prevention

Problem prevention will likely take more time and effort than problem solving initially, but you will save time and money in the long run.

Consider this scenario: Every day your organization receives 5 customer calls about a line item on their bill that take approximately 15 minutes to solve, each time. Your team members make approximately $80,000 per year including benefits or about $40 an hour.

The cause of Issue X is related to an internal process that can be changed, but no-one has had the time to deal with the issue.  Over the year, you organization racked up 1,300 requests, 325 hours and $13,000 in business expenses.

Alternatively, you could invest in a problem prevention approach like this:

  • 4 employees, 8 hours of problem prevention strategy = 32 hours, $1,280
  • 4 employees, 8 hours of problem prevention implementation = 32 hours, $1,280
  • 50 employees at 30 minutes of problem prevention training = 25 hours, $1000
  • Total: $3560

In this scenario, problem prevention will cost you only ¼ of what you spend on problem solving. You simply can not lose!

What is your experience with problem prevention? Other ideas or tips?

Please add them to the comments section.

© 2011, Marci Reynolds. All rights reserved.