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Problem-solving teams – Best tool for gaining workplace productivity

23 June 2014 06:02 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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ast week we were talking about problem-solving teams. We noticed that these teams are temporary and short-term, focussed on one problem, meet occasionally for short periods of time, are cross-functional and comprise only a few members with relevant skills.

To be effective, problem-solving teams need to be able to (1) work co-operatively almost immediately, (2) understand what the problem is (because they do not have time find it out), (3) work fast in short bursts and (4) recognise the expertise within the team.

All of this is difficult to put in place quickly. There is no time for exercises or practice that will take such teams from the forming stage to the performing stage of team development. There is no time to put together a comprehensive mission statement. There is no time to sort out interpersonal relationships. Problem-solving teams are expected to get on with things and fix the problem.

For this reason, much of the team formation stuff that is applicable to permanent work teams or management teams is not relevant to problem-solving teams. What is needed is strong leadership that focusses on team process, access to problem-solving expertise on a just-in-time basis and rigorous adherence to working discipline.  
 
Last week we also talked about the six-stage process where the teams should base their problem-solving approaches. The process consists of problem definition, evaluation of the problem, generating alternatives, selecting a solution, implementation and evaluation of the results. We analysed in detail the first five stages. We continue today from there.



If a group of employees succeeds in reducing the error rate, send everyone an e-mail trumpeting the achievement




Evaluate results

In simplest terms, evaluation is the monitoring that any project needs to ensure that milestones are met, costs are contained and work is completed. Unfortunately, most groups neglect or short-change the evaluation step and therefore do not get the continued results or performance they were hoping to achieve. Effective groups, however, plan additional feedback mechanisms to detect the need for midcourse corrections and to ensure that the problem is solved without creating new problems. Collecting data and reporting on what has been accomplished also keeps a group credible with its constituents. Finally, reflecting on its own processes and results keeps a group effective. It also brings the problem-solving process full circle, as reflecting on results helps a group identify its next step.

It isn’t absolutely necessary that people outside the problem-solving team verify effectiveness, but it might be helpful in order to avoid bias. Whether they’re internal or external, customers are particularly good at shedding light in this regard. If a customer doesn’t perceive an improvement, then there is no improvement.
In addition to the six-stage process, there is one more step to be taken.



Communicate and congratulate
Make problem-solving success stories a frequent subject within your organisation. If a customer complaint gets addressed effectively, tell the tale in the company newsletter. If a group of employees succeeds in reducing the error rate, send everyone an e-mail trumpeting the achievement. If the quality assurance department assists a supplier in improving the consistency of its output, ask the local newspaper to cover the story. The more often employees hear about successes, the more they’ll want to be involved. And the more they become involved, the more successful your company will become.

Dignified public recognition is, of course, a form of communication, one that delivers an astronomical return on investment. The message underlying public recognition is “The organisation appreciates your team’s fine efforts and we sincerely hope others will follow your example.” Who wouldn’t want to follow their example and be recognized, too?

Even if your organisation uses a team approach to problem solving, every problem should be assigned to a specific individual. Confirm that this person accepts the ownership. The owner is simply the project manager for solving the problem. Make sure he or she understands that being selected as “problem owner” in no way indicates accusation or blame. In fact, it’s a vote of confidence in the person’s ability as a leader and manager.

Those most familiar with the variables surrounding a problem should be involved in the problem-solving process. Often, these aren’t managers and supervisors but people taking orders, operating machines, driving forklifts and performing repairs. An organisation’s culture must allow all personnel to contribute actively to the process, regardless of their level within the organisation.



Root cause
An explicit step of nearly all problem-solving models is identifying the root cause. But just because it’s explicit doesn’t mean it will happen. Identifying a problem’s true root cause must be encouraged and it’s the project manager’s responsibility to see that this is done.

Identifying a root cause isn’t easy; it usually takes some serious investigation and intellectual tenacity. Keep in mind that a root cause is rarely the first thing that comes to mind.



If a customer complaint gets addressed effectively, tell the tale in the company newsletter





Consider these general root causes:
  • Employee error. It’s possible that employee error may have been a cause of a problem at hand, but is it the root cause? Why exactly did the employee make the error? Why is the task prone to error? Most likely, employee error isn’t the true root cause and any corrective action directed at this mistaken assumption won’t make the problem go away.

  • Failure to follow procedure. Why didn’t the employee follow procedure? Did he or she know that a procedure existed? Are there other forces at play, such as an incentive that discourages adhering to the procedure? The corrective action for “failure to follow procedure” is usually the old standby, “reprimand employee”. Does anyone really believe that reprimands drive continual improvement? Not in any organisation I’d want to be a part of.

  • Employee not properly trained. If a training programme exists, why was the employee not properly trained? The only reasonable corrective action for “employee not properly trained” is “conduct training”. If the system is inherently flawed, however, no amount of training will remedy it. In fact, training in a flawed work method only reinforces the flawed method, guaranteeing more problems in the future.
The examples above illustrate the elusive nature of root causes. Once you think you’ve identified the root cause, ask “why” one more time. You might be surprised to discover one more layer to the problematic onion.
(Lionel Wijesiri, a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience, can be contacted at lionwije@live.com)

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