The essential elements of solving problems in the workplace. By Danny Crossman
Dealing with problem areas in organisations is always a challenge. Things can go wrong, managers offend, valued staff are lost or you have to deal with industrial disputes. Most organisations have areas that are performing well and other parts about which they have concerns.
Being aware that problems exist does not mean that those responsible can or will resolve the issues. The manager responsible may not be sure how to deal with them and, not wanting to highlight this, avoids the issue. Sometimes it is difficult to know what is causing the problems.
There may be insufficient support from top management to have the matters resolved, or the problems may be a product of the organisation’s overall culture and thus hard to deal with in that work area.
Key elements of the problem-solving process
There are several key steps in a sound problem-solving process that need to be followed to ensure that quality outcomes are achieved in a positive manner.
It is essential to engage the people working in the area, including, of course, the responsible managers. Attempts to change organisations from above or from the outside without involving the people inside from the start often fail because they cannot gain the commitment of those affected to implement the desired outcomes.
By consulting employees in the work area on a face-to-face basis we can gain insights into issues of concern. By asking the right questions, we can clarify the problem and determine all the factors causing it. We also need to develop a understanding of the problem that is shared by all employees, and a similar understanding of each group’s interests. By exploring possible solutions with those involved, we can design outcomes that will gain their commitment.
Case study: Problem solving in local government
The senior management of an inner-city municipality had concerns about the performance of one of its public works units. The unit was not meeting performance targets, and community and staff surveys indicated dissatisfaction among the public and employees. It was decided to use a comprehensive problem-solving process to enhance service provision and the work climate in a consultative manner.
A specialist consultant was brought in to facilitate the correct steps and provide an independent perspective.
Analysis of quantitative data, such as that derived from surveys of the feeling among staff and community perceptions, pinpointed issues of concern for further exploration at a qualitative level.
To explore these issues more deeply the consultant held face-to-face discussions with all unit staff and management and with citizen user groups. This revealed many practices that were not meeting the needs of customers or staff members. Through exploration of these problems with managers and workers, the consultant designed a range of options, which were discussed with all employees. The solutions were then further refined to ensure that they met the needs of all stakeholders and would be effective in harnessing their commitment to implementation.
The outcome was a broad range of improvements to work process, service delivery and employee management that were achieved in a constructive manner with employees, who responded positively to the problem-solving process used. Personal consultation and efforts to meet the needs of all parties helped to build trust. People appreciated having input into the design of the process used for the exercise, and the transparency of all steps.
Problem solving in your organisation
Organisations need to tailor the problem-solving process to the requirements of their particular areas of concern.
Although there is a sequence of steps that needs to be followed, these should be modified according to the goals to be achieved and local circumstances. Key concepts such as face-to-face consultation throughout the exercise, open dialogue, transparent process, independent analysis of qualitative and quantitative data, and creating solutions that are acceptable to all stakeholder groups are crucial.
With a comprehensive problem-solving process incorporating consultation, dialogue, analysis and synthesis, you can reap the rewards of substantial work-place and service improvements.
How not to
How not to hide
After going down as the biggest bankruptcy in history, the disgraced United States energy giant Enron now gets the award for the best camouflage through the use of business jargon. When the numbers didn’t add up, Enron’s honchos were ready with accounting arcana and euphemism. “Maintaining value” was the code for hiding a loss. “Costless collars” was the label applied to the complex financial instruments that allowed investors to sell stock in one of Enron’s notorious loss-concealing partnerships at a set price without having it reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
How not to make money
Jose Luis Landeras of Modesto, California, gets the award for maintaining the most overstocked inventory. He ended up in jail after his grandchildren went to school with $US1100 ($1930) in counterfeit banknotes that their grandfather had allegedly made. School officials called police after a seven-year-old girl showed handful of $US100 notes to classmates. The second-grader and her five-year-old brother told police they took only a few $US100 notes from the pile they had discovered stored in their grandfather’s van. Jose Luis, 42, was arrested on suspicion of making counterfeit money and spending it over the past seven months. Police said that they had confiscated $US2000 in fake notes. Asked by police what his grandfather’s favorite game was, the little boy replied: “The money-making game.”
How not to own up
British police pick up the prize for going the extra mile, literally. They failed to trace the driver of a speeding car used by their own detectives. The unmarked car was caught by a speed camera travelling at 76 kilometres an hour in a 48 kilometre-an- hour zone. None of the officers who had access to the car owned up to driving it, and the log book, which is supposed to register every journey, was incomplete. A court in Aldershot fined the local Hampshire police force $A1306 for speeding. The court was told that the car was registered to detectives at a station in Portsmouth. About 100 officers had access to it.
How not to catch a thief
The award for the most lateral R&D goes to Johannesburg inventor Charles Fourie who has developed a device to stop carjackers dead in their tracks, perhaps literally: a car flame thrower. The Blaster squirts liquefied gas from a bottle in the car’s trunk through two nozzles under the front doors. An electric spark then ignites the gas. Both sides flame at the same time, regardless of whether the attack is from just one side of the vehicle, or whether passersby are on the other side. The device is tailored for the consumer: the breadth and depth of blast can be modified according to individual preference. Fourie did not think the device would kill carjackers, just blind them.
How not to minimise harm
The award for best legal case goes to Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas. She was awarded $US780,000 by jury after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running around a store. The store owners were understandably surprised at the verdict, considering the child was Ms Robertson’s son.